April 17, 2005

Why is Jon Stewart such a media darling?

Harry Stein at City Journal takes a shot at answering that question:
Stewart’s elevation to near-iconic status says more about those doing the elevating than about the comedian himself. His “bravery” and much-vaunted grasp of political nuance consists mostly of his embrace of every reflexive assumption shared by every litmus-tested liberal holding forth at every chic Manhattan dinner party.

It's a long article, which includes a lot of funny stuff from the show, but let me just pull out this argument:
There’s no more striking example of how big a part ideology plays in the mainstream media’s taste in comedy than its about-face on Stewart’s fellow comedian Dennis Miller. Making his bones as one of Chevy Chase’s successors behind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor desk, Miller was long a media darling, praised like Stewart for inventiveness and daring, especially when he became host of his long-running HBO show, Dennis Miller Live. As the New York Times’s Caryn James wrote in 1996, Miller is “as scabrous and funny a political satirist as anyone around,” given to “irreverent comments on the news.”

That’s when Miller was a man of the Left. Then, after September 11, in a metamorphosis both startling and brave, given the world in which he made his living, Miller emerged as an outspoken defender of Bush’s foreign policy. Instantly, he became the skunk at the media party. In 2004, hosting a new show on CNBC, he found himself dismissed by the very same Caryn James as one of “the stand-up comics turned pontificating policy wonks.” To her colleague Rich, he was simply “formerly funny.”

Too true! But I will say something in the media's defense here. Stewart's comic persona is lovable. Miller always had a nasty edge. Both men seem to think you're stupid if you don't agree with them -- which makes the audience want to laugh along to prove they're smart -- but Miller dares you to get pissed at him, and Stewart seems to be begging us to still like him. And it works. I still like Stewart and watch every episode of the show. I even laugh when things I believe are mocked. There's enough gentleness to the satire that people who don't agree can watch. And it's hard to say that about Miller.

18 comments:

Paul said...

I also think this ignores the critical difference between Stewart and Miller: As they say these days, Stewart brings the funny. Miller...doesn't.

And I think it's a bit harsh to say that Stewart doesn't respect those he disagrees with. He disagrees with some people he disrespects, but he also mocks people who agree with him, and his treatment of (most) conservative guests on the show is courteous.

Ann Althouse said...

Stewart clearly has much better writers. I don't think Miller is getting much support.

I agree that Stewart is nice to nearly all of his guests in the interview segment. The problem there is the gloppy fawning!

PatCA said...

Stewart was brilliant after 9/11. While the towers' fire burned and the anthrax spread, he made me laugh and I could go to sleep.

After a while, tho, the "Bush is dumb" jokes wore thin an I only tuned in occasionally.

Shane said...

Re: Bush is dumb jokes.

You obviously haven't watched in a long time. They rarely ever do jokes in the "Bush is dumb" vein anymore because it's too obvious. The writers talk about that in interviews all the time.

Wade_Garrett said...

Jon Stewart has indeed become somewhat of a media darling, but I think a lot of people overstate the degree to which ideology matters here.

Jon Stewart's particular brand of humor is part Rodney Dangerfield, Woody Allen, part Niles Crane and part The Onion. I find it immensely appealing, but then I suppose I'm exactly the type of person to whom Stewart targets his show. Miller, on the other hand, is an angry comic, and I've always considered him to have more in common with Denis Leary or, for that matter, The Daily Show's Lewis Black. Stewart's self-deprecation earns him a lot of laughs and admiration, Miller's overbearing sense of self-importance has long since turned me off.

Stewart's interviews appear to be wholly unscripted and often involve some really interesting give-and-take. He takes all of his guests seriously and listens to what they have to say. Miller's interviews consist of a series of one-liners on which the guest is given the opportunity to comment, interwoven with the occasional belt-high pitch over the heart of the plate, to which the guest can give a scripted answer.

The other day, the President's IPod was much in the news. When reporters commented on the fact that the President listened to music sung by artists who disagree with his policies, somebody remarked that if he only listened to music by pro-establishment musicians, he would have to pick from a very limited selection. Likewise with comedians, if you only watch pro-establishment comedians, you will live in a state of perpetual boredom. Ann Coulter tries to pass for a 'funny' conservative, and the only people who find her 'jokes' 'funny' are the hopelessly enamored talk show hosts.

Miller isn't disliked because he is a conservative, only because he is no longer funny, because he=is shamelessly opportunistic political 180 in the wake of 9-11 lost him a lot of fans, myself included.

Ron said...

I'm really tired of Stewart now, but as I think of it, it may be because he is on daily. What may be funny weekly turns into tics and schticks when you see it every day.

While I agree that Miller isn't funny anymore, and suffers from the same daily problem as Stewart, I agree with Ann that it may be the lack of good writers that hurts him.

Ron said...

I'm really tired of Stewart now, but as I think of it, it may be because he is on daily. What may be funny weekly turns into tics and schticks when you see it every day.

While I agree that Miller isn't funny anymore, and suffers from the same daily problem as Stewart, I agree with Ann that it may be the lack of good writers that hurts him.

Ron said...

double posting again...hrrrrmmmmm

Jason said...

Miller isn't disliked because he is a conservative, only because he is no longer funny, because he=is shamelessly opportunistic political 180 in the wake of 9-11 lost him a lot of fans, myself included.

So which is it? Is he no longer funny or shamelessly, opportunistically... conservative.

You seem eager to disprove the author's thesis, and then articulate it beautifully.

Jacob said...

But a humorless Stewart—in liberal high dudgeon—almost immediately launched into an attack on the program and its hosts for purported journalistic failures
When Stewart was on Crossfire he was attacking them, but he was also very funny. I think he got something like a dozen laughs.

The article reports a bit of the exchange:
But finally, Carlson had enough, and brought up Stewart’s toothless interview with Kerry. “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show,” shot back Stewart, “you’re more than welcome to.”
It leaves out what Stewart said afterwards (paraphrasing): "Cause if you're going to do that, what about Seinfeld? That was a good show".

Shane said...

Don't forget about the bow-tie comment. That was probably the funniest thing he said.

Wade_Garrett said...

Jason - What I am saying is that Miller's 'conservatism' isn't authentic; it is transparently opportunistic. When Clinton was in office, people like Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh were easy targets in many ways. After 9-11, Michael Moore, Barbara Streisand, etc became easy targets. Moore and Streisand probably had it coming, but making fun of an easy target doesn't make you funny, it only makes you a bully.

Jason said...

Terrence... I understand what you're saying about opportunism, but I think you're oversimplifying the term. If you think he's opportunistic merely because Michael Moore is as easy a target as Newt Gingrich was in the 1990s, I guess that's opportunism. But taking that angle further, it's pretty opportunistic for an entertainer to aim his or her sights at President Bush, who is just as easy a target as the ones you mention.

On the other hand, if Dennis' change of heart was nothing more than naked opportunism, he hosed his credibility be sidling up to the establishment (and conservatism, more or less) in the last couple of years. He may have easier targets in Moore, Streisand and Garafalo, but he's also lost an influential amen corner that includes elite cultural journalists such as Frank Rich and Caryn James. Again, if that's opportunism, it comes with a heavy price.

I don't disagree with you that Stewart is funnier than Miller (although I attribute a lot of that to better writers than their own talents -- because when both of them are in their element, they're very funny). That said, I've tired of Stewart's habit of basking in the cultural bellwether label that the adoring media has given him, only to adopt a "don't shoot me, I'm only a comedian" schtick whenever he's actually pressed on his views (see Crossfire).

I still think the article is pretty spot on with the idea that much of the animus toward Miller is based on the fact that he's not supporting the preferred candidate. But it's overbroad to call him a conservative based solely on his support for the War on Terror. After all, he was the one who said that if two guys wanted to get married, he's support their wishes... and if a terrorist wanted to blow up the wedding, he'd support the government's attempts to take that individual out. Say what you want, but that's not what most people think of when they think of modern conservatism.

dick said...

"I still think the article is pretty spot on with the idea that much of the animus toward Miller is based on the fact that he's not supporting the preferred candidate. But it's overbroad to call him a conservative based solely on his support for the War on Terror. After all, he was the one who said that if two guys wanted to get married, he's support their wishes... and if a terrorist wanted to blow up the wedding, he'd support the government's attempts to take that individual out. Say what you want, but that's not what most people think of when they think of modern conservatism."

The problem is that that is what most conservatives say. The media is not reporting what most conservatives say, only what the ones who most upset the LLL say.

I am a conservative and Dennis Miller's comments that you quoted are very much what I believe and what most of my conservative friends believe.

Danny said...

I think Dennis Miller's biggest problem these days might be the format of his show. I suppose this has a lot to do with writers. His HBO show was great, but it was great because of the rant and the end part with the news on the TV. All of that was pre-written. His interviews were always bad. His new show is mostly interviews. And I think it's bad for that reason.

Ann Althouse said...

Interesting discussion! I agree with Jason that Miller lost a lot of support by taking the strong national security position he did after 9/11. He's doing his show now under stark conditions, and it is hurting his reputation. Still, he's scarcely a martyr.

As to interviews, both he and Stewart have similar limitations, mostly because they need to keep being comedians and they look for places to insert wisecracks.

Dick: Is Miller a typical conservative? He's a libertarian type conservative, like you and your friends (presumably).

Mark Daniels said...

I probably haven't been fair to Stewart because I have never watched his Comedy Central TV show. That's because, having sampled Stewart in his earlier video incarnations, he's never caused me to as much as break into a smile. He's never been funny to me.

Perhaps I need to give him another chance sometime.

Mawado said...

I respectfully beg to differ.
It seems to me that the most ostracized of entertainers is the failed entertainer. I think the coincidental elephant in the room is Mr. Miller's highly public, catastrophe of a performance at Monday Night Football. Not only was it a disaster of epic proportions, it happened in front of his prime demographic (young men). Also, unlike a poorly reviewed movie or perfromance, it was blasted near weekly as, not only not funny, but also concieted, condescending, and cruel.
I don't think any performer's reputation could have survived the onslaught.
I can't offer a comparison with Mr. Stewart's work as I haven't watched it. (Well except the cross fire bit)

Thank you
mawado