Goodbye, Jon Stewart: Please Let the New Guy Be Funnier

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Jon Stewart’s decision to leave “The Daily Show” at what critics universally call the top of his game serves as another reminder of just how humor-deprived contemporary American television has become.

Stewart is, like his fellow Comedy Central alum Stephen Colbert and standup megastar Louis C.K., one of the most overrated talents of our time. Not that he isn’t fast on his feet – he is. Not that the camera doesn’t love him – it does. Not that he doesn’t understand timing – he does.

jon-stewartWhat Stewart isn’t is falling-down-on-the-floor hilarious. His fits and starts, lurching style of monologue elicits plenty of knowing guffaws and the occasional eye-rolling laugh at the expense of, typically, an ideologically inconsistent politician. But because he refuses to take the chance of alienating his audiences by offending them, he never risks falling off the high wire you have to climb in order to achieve comedy greatness.

If you want to be really funny, you have to be dangerous.

(To illustrate this point, I was going to cite a farm-based joke by Rudy Ray Moore, the black comedian and Blaxploitation filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s so outrageous and so obscene that I’m pretty sure I’ve never work again if I did. Now that’s some wickedly funny stuff.)

I remember – actually, as a cartoonist, I am traumatized by recollecting – a female friend telling me why she turned against the late great George Carlin.

She loved Carlin. She owned many of his albums. She had seen him in concert many times. She couldn’t stop talking about how brilliant he was. Then, she explained, he said one joke that offended her feminist sensibilities. After that, he was dead to her.

I was baffled and a little disgusted. “In baseball, if you hit the ball 35 percent of the time, you’re a God. So you need to tell me that George Carlin told thousands of jokes that you loved, gave you hours of pleasure and countless laugh out loud moments, but because of one joke, he was dead to you? You fired a guy with a .999 batting average!” (I’m more in the 30 percent range.)

He was.

Here’s the joke that pissed her off: “Have you ever noticed that the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?”

Neither Jon Stewart nor Stephen Colbert nor John Oliver are ever going to say anything that funny. Or that mean. That’s not their business model. They walk between a very narrow set of lines defined by decades of political correctness.

Which is fine. Really. I don’t have a problem with what they do. The issue isn’t that they play it safe; the problem is that America is so starved for comedy that they manage to pass this bland stuff off as the real thing. The only reason that they have been so successful is that, following decades of horrible late-night tedium like Jay Leno, David Letterman and the inexplicably still on the air “Saturday Night Live” which, contrary to conventional wisdom was never very funny but is certainly much less so now.

“The humor that makes me laugh hardest is the material I know would offend or insult someone else,” wrote “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams in 2008. “But offending isn’t enough. The audience gets more out of humor if the messenger is putting himself in danger.” Adams says it’s a universal law, and I agree with him. It certainly applies to me. My most outrageous work – on 9/11 widows, Pat Tillman, making fun of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – is also some of my funniest. And it definitely put me in danger: I stopped counting the death threats at 1000. And I lost some good jobs.

Every now and then, someone has to kill a humorist to remind us how dangerous good humor can be.

Of all things, last month’s massacre of – whether you like them or not, outrageously funny – cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris reminded some Americans of what exists elsewhere, but has been lost here, or perhaps never existed: an over-the-top, ribald, take-no-prisoners culture of satire, particularly in print but also on television.

Every few years, I make the rounds in Hollywood trying to pitch TV show ideas. During the peak of the Bush years, and before the idiotic “That’s My Bush!,” I presented to executives all over Los Angeles my idea for a comedy, either live action or animated, that made fun of the Bush family and the president’s top officials. The hook was, Bush was actually a reluctant leader, didn’t want to be there, and was secretly brilliant but didn’t want to let on. His daughter Jenna was really running the show. Dick Cheney was a softhearted wimp who broke into tears over nothing.

Maybe the show was a dumb idea, I don’t know, I’m not a TV executive. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is, Hollywood was so satirically illiterate that they rejected the idea based on legal fears: they were worried about being sued by the first family. As I repeatedly explained, Bush and Cheney and their families were public figures, so it would have been possible to mock them six ways till Sunday without having to worry about a successful lawsuit. Besides, almost every other Western country on earth had some sort of comedy show that sent up their political leaders: France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, even, at the time, Russia. They were all quite popular.

I explained that, as an editorial cartoonist, I routinely say all sorts of terrible things about the president, and yet, here I am, not in prison, at least not yet. But the pitch meetings never got beyond the legal questions. That’s how safe TV has become: they don’t even know what the legal landscape looks like.

There have been some bright spots. But you have to wonder, would anyone greenlight “The Simpsons” today? How about “South Park”?

There is no denying the success of the Comedy Central approach. Millennial viewers who would never watch the evening news nevertheless enjoy, and learn from, the fake news format pioneered by Stewart and Colbert. But make no mistake: that is not hard-hitting political satire.

Louis C.K., who is undeniably much funnier than those two, nonetheless likes to keep things safe as well. Although these incredibly incisive when issuing humorists observations about divorce, relationships, parenthood and popular culture, he generally shies away from straight-ahead politics.

The fact that it hasn’t always been this way tells us that things can change. In the 1960s and 1970s, even the relatively tame Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby routinely delivered more trenchant humor than you’ll find on television today. Richard Pryor, of course, was a God. Hell, Lenny Bruce got arrested! That’s not going to happen to the big-time comedians that we are constantly being told are so funny today.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great humor out there – but not on the national stage, not on network television.

So now that the big Comedy Central stars have left, Colbert to the blander than bland Tonight Show (notice how no one talks about him anymore?), Stewart to whatever he figures out, we have an opportunity to reconsider the fact that, as a humor-loving people, Americans have the God-given right to watch dangerously funny TV shows – and there has never been a time when they were more needed.

18 thoughts on “Goodbye, Jon Stewart: Please Let the New Guy Be Funnier

  1. Ted, I have disagree with you regarding Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I have relied upon them for much of my “news” on U.S. politics and enjoy them tremendously, along with cartoonists such as yourself. Not since “Laugh-In” have I been so entertained with news from the comedic standpoint. They often have given me the incentive to search the Internet for more “objective and informative” sources for their jabs at political figures.

    I’ll miss Stephen’s “The Colbert Report ” but I look forward to watching him on “The Late Show” (not “The Tonight Show” as you wrote [which is Jimmy Fallon]). If I relied on mainstream sources, I would be completely oblivious to some of the goings-on in the U.S. (as a resident of Mexico).

    • I’ve certainly noticed as a regular viewer that both treat Obama with kid gloves and that their default is that almost any Dem is better than any Repub and that’s just bullshit. I don’t like ANY Dem but a couple Repubs (libertarian types). I’ve got a Dem legislator in my state trying to ban e-cigs. Anyway, as Jon and Stephen talk of drones, endless war or the NSA, you wouldn’t know from them who the president doing it was…

      Bottom line is Ted’s right. They are establishment/mainstream types who know their audience is and dare not dump on Dems too much. Though I do think Stephen is one of the funniest people alive especially in Strangers with Candy, but like Key and Peele, much funnier when not trying to be political.

      • Oh and contrast their meager, safe criticism of Obama with the almost daily (heh) personal attacks on Bush officials.

      • Could it possibly be that there was much more comedic material available under Bush? In other words, your comparison is “non sequitur”; different personalities and different governing styles do not equate to attacking Obama in like measure to the attacks on Bush, who provided much more fodder. 😀

      • I suppose Bushies are easier to make fun of for liberal types, but I find Obamabots nearly as silly.

      • Am I to understand then, that from your perspective, there has to be an equivalent number of jabs at Obama, as compared to those directed at Bush, for a comic to be authentic and objective in his observations? I say again: Bush provided much more fodder for comedy. 🙂

  2. – have to agree with you derlehrer, Stewart provided a lot of news mixed with entertainment, along with Colbert, and I will miss them both – like you – I’m also looking forward to seeing what persona will appear in place of Letterman. I think Ted has been a little hard on both of them for not being “dangerous” enough, but well, ya’ know, Ted is Ted. Seems a little odd that he places Louis O.K. so far above them, because I found a regular diet of the ol’ OK a bit depressing, with the “oh, what can ya’ do, whatever…. facial expressions and general lack of any political insight – that is, if he was expected to be more political or socially oriented. Bill Maher is one of my favorites, as I enjoy the interaction he provides with his various guest panelists, etc. Still, Bill Maher is often over the top and off-center to what I think one some issues, but that is to be expected with his strong predilections towards a few issues. If you want someone who’s in your face, how about Lewis Black? There are a few more comics that are more “dangerous”, but they don’t seem to get the exposure with so many of the run-of-the-mill ones crowding the scene. Yeah, Ted, would be nice to have another Lenny Bruce, etc., but if you expect Stewart or Colbert to fill that role, then you are just expecting too much from the wrong people to expect it from. In a way, Ted suffers a bit from the same thing that he complains about – an inability to shift with the times and deliver with a fresh approach. Too much of the same thing over and over can get a bit tired. If Ted was taking suggestions, I’d want him to shift more towards 2 of the more important issues – 2 issues that are the basis that so many other issues arise from: The ridiculous amount of apathy and blindness of the general public, and the unbelievable influence that big money ad corporations have on our representatives. Just a suggestion.

    • I’d put the systematic stripping away of our rights even higher than those two issues, and at least on par the fact that so many misunderstand liberty and are afraid as much as apathetic in the ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’

      • rikster said:
        “The ridiculous amount of apathy and blindness of the general public, and the unbelievable influence that big money ad corporations have on our representatives. Just a suggestion.”

        You said: “… at least on par the fact that so many misunderstand liberty and are afraid as much as apathetic….”

        What is it about his post that you failed to comprehend????

      • Actually, I think you misunderstood me. He said nothing about fear or proper knowledge of freedom. I said those were at least as important as corruption or apathy.

      • I believe that “proper knowledge of freedom” is included in rikster’s “blindness of the general public.”

        With regard to “fear,” there isn’t a remedy for that, since it is an emotion. You can tell a child that there is no monster under the bed, but that doesn’t eradicate the fear. People have an irrational fear of the enemy attacking our “freedoms,” so what do you suggest to eliminate that fear?

      • I’m not sure whether it is more dangerous or just depressing that you think emotions can’t be altered. But you are quite right that those beholden to their emotions are indeed children.

        As a right-wing libertarian, I do not believe that Lefties know what freedom is any more than a hick who thinks “the troops” are “over there defending” it. So it was not included in rikster’s comment.

      • My suggestion is what I do for myself and what anyone does to get over a fear. We confront ourselves with the truth, quite literally talk ourselves through how we feel and why, and then think about how we SHOULD be feeling and associate a strong positive memory with the fear to be overcome. Or even more simply, we confront the fear. Do you really believe that fears are immutable?

  3. My father genuinely believes that Jon and Stepehn are dangerous, speaking truth to power. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since the only news he gets otherwise is talk radio and the only people he knows are neocons. Hardly takes balls to do what they do when half the country attacks Republicans and nearly the entire media bemoans the amount of money in politics.

  4. No love for “Veep,” Ted? The British definitely have us beat when it comes to political satire. It would be great if we had stuff like Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick of It” or Chris Morris’ “Four Lions” or “The Day Today.” Listen to “The Day Today” 9/11 broadcast (it’s on YouTube) and try to imagine something like that being played on U.S. TV or even on the radio. I’d put part of the blame on American audiences of course.

    In defense of Jon Stewart, it’s tough to be consistently laugh-out loud funny when much of his material consists of pointing out how absurd, hypocritical and ridiculous American politics and culture have become. “Here’s a clip of Politician X saying one thing; now here’s a clip from a week ago of Politician X saying the exact opposite. Can you believe this?” (Same with Maher and Oliver.) And he was pretty good at hitting at Obama’s hypocrisy, though not to the extent I’d want. My biggest complaint is his interviews, as the show suffered whenever they had some slimeball like Condi Rice or Robert Gates or some Bush/Obama official on to promote their self-serving memoir.

  5. When David Letterman had a little daytime TV show I thought he was funny. When he went to his present gig he lost me really quick. Every guest spot became a sales pitch for a movie or book.

    And that was way before he shut down a Bill Hicks and then an Ani DiFranco performance out of respect to the tight asses out in TV land.

    Who needs government censorship when you’ve got Corporate censorship?