A response to Steve Almond on our late-night political comedians

Jon Stewart

Michael Potemra of the National Review Online takes issue with Steve Almond’s critique of the late-night comedy duo Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (previously covered here):

The Baffler writer…calls the work of Colbert and Stewart an “almost entirely therapeutic” attempt to “congratulate” the viewers, and criticizes the viewers for “accept[ing] coy mockery as genuine subversion.”

But what if we, the viewers, don’t want genuine subversion of the exact same things you happen to want to subvert? Furthermore, what if we don’t mind laughing even about some things we agree with? Both Colbert and Stewart make fun of some of my own political views. I was thinking of saying that I like them in spite of this; it might be more accurate to say that I like them, at least in part, not in spite of this but because of it — because I don’t want to live in a country where people can’t laugh at themselves, and where everybody takes himself and his own opinions as seriously as the Baffler guy seems to.

I don’t think this debate comes down to who takes himself more seriously. It’s about who you think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are. If you think they’re simply comedians, you react as does Potemra. But if you suspect that behind their mock rage lies something a little more like…real rage, then perhaps you wonder, as Steve Almond does, why they don’t take that last, significant leap into hard-edged social commentary. Instead, we’re treated to the now all-too-familiar sight of Jon Stewart retreating behind the tired trope of “I’m just a comedian.”

Which he isn’t. Comedians generally don’t get CNN shows canceled. And they don’t play major roles in passing healthcare legislation for 9/11 first responders. Stewart, like so many of The Daily Show‘s hapless victims, wants it both ways. It’s just that, since he himself is the subject of this conversation, we don’t have someone funny around to point out his blatant inconsistencies.

Instead, we have Steve Almond. Where Potemra is right, I think, is in judging just how mainstream Stewart really is. Over the past few years, I, too, have wondered if Stewart were going soft. But more and more I’m guessing he was never that leftist to begin with. The Bush years presented fruit ripe for the picking, so it was easy to paint Stewart as a liberal. But now that a Democrat (albeit a fairly conservative one) is in the White House, it’s quickly become apparent that Stewart has little interest in pressing against the dominant strand of right-wing thought that’s gripped American politics over the last few years.

Like Steve Almond, I want Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to take up the liberal baton with more vigor. I’m just not sure if that’s who they are, or if it’s simply who I wish they were.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan at the always-excellent Dish for linking to Potemra’s piece.)

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