October 17, 2011

Jon Steward: Post-Political Ringmaster

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You’re watching The Daily Show. WHOA THAT WAS THE FUNNIEST JOKE EVER, IT CAME FROM NOWHERE HOW COULD ANYONE THI — Now pause. Firstly: you’re smiling. Your eyes are closed — you’ve, for all intents and purposes, “blinded” yourself. Your back is arched, your neck cocked backwards — face to the sky. First consider the psychological impact: our mood is heightened and, more profoundly, our outlook on our present situation is buoyed (you can be skeptical, but I’m taking this as a given because studies have shown blah blah blah….). Next, give the laugh a physical analysis: picture the movement itself. Now use this image (the profile of a hearty slow-motion laugh) as a backdrop.

The role of humor in social interaction has an endless potential to be analyzed, but for the sake of concision, I ask you to consider the specific paradigm of comedy television. A large portion of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is spent showing short news clips which are spliced down to make their relevance as glaringly obvious as possible, followed by Stewart giving his comedic two cents. When Stewart reappears on the screen following a clip, he’s almost always wearing an incredulous expression. On one level, the audience clearly knows his shock is feigned: he’s seen this clip before, and scripted out what his reaction will be. This is a non-issue, it’s characteristic of almost all television. But what’s important here is that despite the audience’s understanding of this, his reaction does not lose it’s authenticity — if anything, the audience sees Stewart’s reaction as more authentic than a typical reaction; his reaction, though calculated, was deliberated upon and endorsed by him/his staff. And, being that they (Stewart and his staff) make their living by understanding and interpreting the political scene — his reaction to a clip has an implicit credibility. Again, nothing unique has been revealed: implied credibility is characteristic of all news coverage. What sets The Daily Show apart, however, is the type of reaction they aim to elicit in their viewers: the laugh.

We laugh as a reflex — there is no time spent “endorsing” meaning or message before we rear back with closed eyes. We worship the immediacy and conviction of the laugh with a sort of “faith.” It is, we think, something inherently “good.” Thus the laugh receives a two-fold (and totally thoughtless) endorsement. We endorse it in the same way we would endorse a feeling of shock, fear, etc. — as an immediate response, like a muscle reflex, that is true and “natural.” Secondly, we endorse the laugh simply because it is a good feeling, “good feelings” also being endorsed as a matter of faith.

On The Daily Show, often times the on-set audience does not even laugh until after the clip has been run and they see Stewart’s baffled face staring back at them. Don’t buy it? Picture The Daily Show showing some arbitrary and non-provocative speech from Congress for four or five seconds, add Fox’s logo in the corner, sprinkle in some hot buzzwords: a “Palin” or “Weiner” or two, and then cut to Stewart’s mug staring at the screen stupefied: mouth hanging open, head in hands. What are you picturing? A silent audience? No, of course not. The crowd is laughing. They’re laughing because that is what they’ve learned is appropriate at this point during the Daily Show. They’re laughing at the meta — with Stewart as their post-political ringmaster. It’s Pavlovian. Stewart rings the bell, the audience salivates. And like Pavlov’s dogs that thought they were salivating for food, Daily Show-watchers believe they’re laughing at the clip.

Now, okay. I realize I probably seem to be selling short the mind of the average Daily Show viewer. And of course, Stewart is not showing arbitrarily chosen clips — they’re often so appropriate and hysterical it seems implausible that a ‘real’ news station could have aired them. I often wonder if stations like Fox might be in cahoots with Comedy Central — deliberately providing fuel for Stewart’s show. There is a lot to laugh at in politics and political news coverage, and Stewart is always the first one to laugh at himself. For those that are in tune with the political scene, The Daily Show has tremendous value — it keeps you honest: “snaps you out of it,” and can diffuse the iron-wrought tension between antagonizing convictions. However, not all Daily Show-watchers are in tune with the political scene, and the “fad” effect has led to many college students watching The Daily Show as their only source of news. This is dangerous because “fake news coverage,” or more appropriately “meta-news coverage” or “post-political news coverage,” has an undeniable power to convince. Don’t be fooled — the effect of a Daily Show viewing isn’t just an ideological transcendence of political feuding.

Picture the laugh again. The hysterical Daily Show kind: the “THE LEFT’S RIDICULOUS, THE RIGHT’S RIDICULOUS AND I’M RIDICULOUS!” kind. This is the “transcendent laugh” Stewart wants you to think you’re having (Jon Stewart implies this by claiming that he is airing apolitical “fake news”). While this self-awareness may be what DS/CR wants to spark the laughter, our positive emotional response does not occur in an ideological vacuum; again — we think we are laughing at the clip. We think we are laughing at something that we watched, and thus engaging in non-transcendental ridicule of a clip with “laughable” content. By merely showing more clips that exhibit one political disposition rather than another, Stewart can use the “transcendent laugh” to establish very political, non-transcendent convictions in their viewers. This route of persuasion, I think most would agree, seems somewhat peripheral and manipulative.

For the individuals who want to establish political convictions based on their uncontaminated personal ideologies, the Question here isn’t whether or not you agree with JS/SC politically: its much deeper than that. Instead, The Question concerns the route by which we have come to these convictions. Are we deciding based on our own philosophies and ideals? Are we guarding against latent manipulation? Are we tailoring our political convictions against the target of our laughter? While these “fake news” shows with politically charged content, I submit that humor can be used to manipulate; it can, if we’re not careful, effectively and dangerously demote the Question.

Still picturing that laugh? Watch as it ends … Head levels. Eyes open. Smile fades.

A laugh. A nod.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur