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.