Bill Maher, Meet Jon Stewart (and Other Random Thoughts)


Far be it for me to comment on issues not directly tied to Boy At The Window…wait…who am I kidding! Everything I talk about relates to my manuscript somehow, even if the post is as loopy as a Berkeley, Greenwich Village or Takoma Park hippie walking around after dropping acid. I digress. I have some recent events to comment on, ones that are both amusing and disturbing. Like the difference between watching Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show last Thursday versus watching Bill Maher’s Real Time just 24 hours later. It was comic-turned-serious journalism at its best and worst, and just a day apart.

We all know the Stewart smackdown of Jim Cramer story. It might as well have been Pacquiao vs. De La Hoya from last December, only the ref would’ve stepped in after the second round instead of letting it go for eight. The reason it was such a slaughter was that Jon Stewart, for all of his irreverence and goofiness, cares about these issues. He certainly cares enough to study the material he needs in order to raise tough questions and poke fun at political and cultural issues simultaneously. Jim Cramer was about as prepared to respond to Stewart as I would’ve been — when I was nine years old! The Daily Show was already one of my favorite shows before the past week and a half of Stewart raging against the machine. Now I can safely keep the TV off of MSNBC — unless it’s Keith Olbermann’s Countdown – and CNN and only watch Comedy Central or BBC America for real news.

It also speaks to how little news we actually get from our cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FIX News, Headline News and so on. It’s no surprise that despite this past election cycle, most Americans have moved away from traditional carriers of news and endless oppositional commentary to looking up what they want on the Internet, and often through blogs at that. And since when is it news that good comedians are also very inquisitive and wonderfully smart people? From David Letterman to Richard Pryor, comedians get to ask tough questions because, in the end, a tough question is easier than their easiest joke. It’s in a good comedian’s nature to do so. I hope they’re paying Stewart enough money to stay on at least three more years.

Contrast Stewart’s brilliant performance to the one mailed in by Bill Maher last Friday night. Heck, saying that Maher mailed it in insults the US Postal Service. More like he barely showed up. Maher couldn’t remember the name of the conservative blogger he brought in to bite at Michael Eric Dyson’s ankles, couldn’t remember that Dyson’s been at Georgetown since the summer of ’07. Dyson’s a guest that Maher has on at least once in every split-season of Real Time since it’s been on HBO! Maher then spent fifteen minutes talking with Sarah Silverman about the Playboy Mansion. I love Sarah Silverman, but that segment couldn’t have been worse if Michael Richards was there interviewing Mel Gibson. Maher’s lack of preparation highlights the reality that even a talented comedian must work hard at their craft to stay at the top of their game.

But there’s more to this than simple sloppiness. Maher’s edge has dulled because Bush Jr.’s no longer in office, and President Obama has been pretty good so far. “Pretty good” compared to the previous resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is like comparing Julius Caesar to Nero. As much as there is to criticize Republicans, neoconservatives, or even the Obama Administration about, Maher had little to offer last Friday night. He didn’t even mention the Stewart-Cramer showdown in his monologue. At least it would’ve broken the monotony of his “New Rules” or tired “third rail” arguments about social issues and religion.

With Dyson and the conservative blogger, it was an attempt to spice up Real Time with a real good argument. Except it was much of the same oppositional bluster signifying nothing that Stewart has been so critical of in recent years. Plus, weren’t there other, younger folks available last Friday to talk more intelligently — or at least, entertainingly — about race or social issues or the future of American conservatism? Not that Dyson is old, at least physically. Intellectually, his ideas represent the early ’90s, the height of the so-called Culture Wars, and not an understanding of race in the early twenty-first century. Maher and company might have been better off with Kevin Powell, Rachel Maddow or — dare I say — Ross Douthat from The Atlantic Monthly on his show last week. Fresh faces, fresh ideas, more measured arguments. That was missing last Friday. I sense that this is a freshness that has been missing for at least a year.

Maher’s problem is part of a larger problem with the media over the past ten or fifteen years. If you listen to standard radio and watch TV news and cable edutainment long enough, you hear the same voices and see the same faces. You know what Pat Buchanan’s going to say ten minutes before he say it. You’re ready for Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post to take his pregnant “Uuuhhh” pauses before he actually opens his mouth. You’re sure that Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala will spin like crazy for their ideological perspective before you’ve stopped brushing your teeth in the morning. When’s the last time someone new and under thirty has made a big splash as a journalist, commentator, writer, or intellectual in the media of the media? Bottom line: the media elite — that’s anyone with an established name in publishing, TV, radio, cable, Hollywood and music, and to a much lesser extent, the Internet — spends so much of their time talking to themselves that they’ve long lost touch with what the rest of us see, think and say.

That’s why Stewart is so refreshing. He and his staff, through humor, sarcasm and actual intellectual curiosity, have their fingers on the pulse of many Americans disenchanted with this sorry state of media affairs. It’s part of the reason why I started this blog. I hope that Maher brings his “A” game in the coming weeks. Or this will be yet another show I’ll have to skip.

3 Responses to Bill Maher, Meet Jon Stewart (and Other Random Thoughts)

  1. MadonnaMia says:

    I just watched that show, as I’d downloaded it. You’re spot on, though. His first show, which featured Tina Brown, the US correspondent for the Financial Times and Maxine Waters, was , undoubtedly, the best thus far. It’s been downhill after that. The third and fourth shows of the series (6th and 13th March) featured a two-guest panel, neither of which worked at all. On the show of the 6th, Maher joked about the two-person panel being the show’s concession to the recession; the following week, he corrected himself and said that he was ‘tired’ of the three-person panel and was trying one with two.That struck me as funny. The first remark seemed to be flip sarcasm and it said so much more than the second and echoed something I’d been wondering since his last interview on Larry King, when Maher lamented the fact that ‘certain people’ wouldn’t touch his program with a barge pole after having ascended to a certain height. It made me wonder if he and HBO were having problems finding people who would agree to appear. Thus, someone slapped his wrists and he was made to or felt he had to make the inane comment about being tired of three-person panels. That sucked, because in the show of the 20th and the past week, he was back to having three-person panels.Possibly, he’s been doing too much other than Real Time. The shows of the 6th and the 13th showed him to be really off the ball – he was woefully unprepared for Peter Singer’s interview as well. Considering both these programs came immediately before and after the three debates on the East Coast and in Chicago with Ann Coulter, it could be that in the first instance, his mind was on the upcoming debates and in the second, he was just tired.He seems to be burning the candle at both ends lately with Real Time and stand-up, moreso than he did last year, which begs one to wonder if there might be some financial problems there?The Sarah Silverman segment was just wierd. I don’t find her funny, and I find any woman who resorts to using the c-word repulsive. She proved that she herself was the biggest C in that performance. I hope Real Time improves, because I really love Bill Maher and I think he’s one of the most astute social commentators of the time. He deserves so much more recognition, but at the moment, something’s bothering him in a big way for him to go so much off the boil.

  2. Donald Earl Collins says:

    @achali:

    I disagree with you, but only in degree. I don’t think Jon Stewart’s work on <>The Daily Show<> is necessarily harder, easier, or more comedic than what Bill Maher does on <>Real Time<>. Stewart’s show runs four times a week, meaning he still has to keep up with current events, find enough humor, irony, and sarcasm necessary to communicate the news. And still be savvy enough to interview movers, shakers and scholars at the end of his shows. Maher’s show has the advantage and disadvantage of being once a week, and while it might not be exclusively comedic, it is mostly so, based on the questions he asks and crass comments he makes.

    My point in March was that the quality and effort wasn’t there, that Maher was still searching for a voice in the Obama era. Yes, Maher’s show has gotten better in the past five weeks, but I’m not sure that he’s there yet in holding Obama’s feet to the comedic political commentator fire. Stewart’s and Maher’s shows are two sides of the same coin, but the difference right now is freshness in ideas and approaches between their shows. And by the way, comedy is a great way to learn something about politics and the news, and has been that way for several millennia. It’s also a lot of hard work, so I don’t knock neither Maher nor Stewart’s work in general.

  3. achali says:

    Great post. If only Jon Stewart could keep that up though. Unfortunately The Daily Show comes across on most nights as a detached and apathetic “critique of all sides” type show. On most nights Jon’s jokes are easy crowdpleasers. I was excited as anyone when Jon ripped into Jim Cramer, but we don’t get that every show.

    Meanwhile, since you wrote this in March, Bill Maher has been picking up speed.

    [http://weblog.liberatormagazine.com/2009/05/fine-episode-of-bill-maher.html]

    The most recent episode with M.I.A., Muhammad Yunis, and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was pretty good.

    With Jon Stewart the entire show HAS to be comedy. Then he sells a book at the end of the show while asking a few questions, where we sometimes get glimpses of serious commentary. The Cramer episode was so unusual that the full interview had to be broadcast online. And still, Cramer was an easy target at the time. All Stewart did was put on his Jersey mask and get on a soap box, really.

    I think Maher has the harder job in that he is trying to put together a balanced presentation of serious (for a comedian) commentary and discussion while taking a few comedic jabs at our reality (as seen through his eyes). I certainly watch both shows, but I feel a little more learned sometimes after watching Maher… not so much with The Daily Show.

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