Politics Is Funny, But Nothing To Laugh At: The Daily Show And Its Limits

Curator's Note

Going beyond humor, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart creates a climate of agreement where the audience and host coalesce around a shared, exasperated vision of politics and its media coverage. Though trenchant in its media criticism, the show’s views on politics are as regimented and self-serving as the news outlets it mocks. Specifically, Stewart presents politics as primarily about process and his show contributes to an overall media climate where the possibility of politics to produce meaningful, systemic change is a joke. Steve Almond has argued recently that Stewart acts as a corporate opiate with his pedestrian and thoroughly inoffensive humor. Stewart’s vision of politics is not argument driven, but people getting along and having a conversation. In fact, Stewart does not “buy into” the left/right divide being a defining fault line in American politics. In his lengthy interview with Rachel Maddow following the much-maligned “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, Stewart suggests the real focus should be on more important and supposedly apolitical divides like “corrupt/non-corrupt” or “extremist/non-extremist”.

Courtesy is a self-evidently important quality, but as the primary goal it reduces real political disagreement to matters of taste, similar to a team you root for. The idea that people have real grievances, and are not merely being jerks or unaware of the other side’s argument, seems to be difficult for Stewart, and The Daily Show as a whole, to grasp. In the included clip on the Occupy Wall Street protests, Stewart points out protests are about optics and not just substance. When looking at a man defecating on a police car this point is undeniably funny. Yet, an obsession with optics is all Stewart and The Daily Show can provide. Substance, as indicated in the lack of any at the 2010 Stewart rally, is too divisive and suspect. While cable news feed into extremes, The Daily Show creates an equally dangerous impression that our political differences are only on the surface, somehow made up and easily solved by making fun of freaks and weirdos. By limiting the possibility of politics, both The Daily Show and the media it ridicules contribute to a political culture of disillusionment and disempowerment.


 ...of Stewart and his team avoiding substance for ratings, because they do not feel competent stepping fully into the policy arena, or some combination thereof?  And would you argue The Daily Show is the place for such substantive critiques, or are you simply saying TDS is indicative of a broader lack of willingness to engage with substantive political issues in the US?

Respectfully, I disagree. First off, it's hard to take a show that produces as much comic content as does The Daily Show and then decide, in blanket fashion, that all of that comedy precludes politics. As a large amount of audience research has shown, audiences respond to different resonances in a text, but it would also require a LOT of textual analysis to back up the heady claims here.

Case in point, the rally: you say there was no substance. But rallies aren't just about the people talking; they're about everyone there. Thousands upon thousands of people showed up in addition to Stewart, many of whom had come a long way, and were politicized in exactly the ways that political scientists get giddy thinking about. But if TDS produces the death, absence, or frustration of politics, as you suggest, how and why did they show up? Their mere presence, I'd pose, could be read as a wonderfully impressive sign of how the show encourages action, engagement, and more than "just" laughter. Sure, some were just there to goof around and have fun, but it's actually quite insulting to suggest that it was all about optics to all of them. Yet we're then left either with the suggestion that all these politicized participants were politicized in spite of Stewart, or that perhaps there's more to the show than you're seeing.

Sure, at times its humor is juvenile, at times it gives the opposite of intelligence, and at times its arguments and deeper meanings are lame. But if it doesn't work at some level, why is it that so very many actively politicized people love the show more than anything else on TV?

I respect the claim that audiences respond to texts in different and unpredictable ways, but I'm not sure that that problem really addresses the politics of spectacle that Sharma is describing. Although his claims are certainly written provocatively, what I like about them is that they take seriously the notion that a piece of televisuality can participate in a political debate in a way that is connected to the problem of audiences (of which viewers gather and watch, and what they think or decide to do based upon their interpretation of the text, etc), but ultimately can't be reduced to audience behavior.

Because the fact of the matter is, Stewart (and Colbert for that matter) can participate in politics, through spectacle, in a way that most of his audience, myself included, simply cannot. This is because the ontics of American politics are spectacular. I'm not bemoaning that fact; as Gray points out it, the spectacle of political conversation and participation that TDS offers is the basis for formation of communities and other political engagements. These aren't fictional, or delusional. But what Stewart says and does ultimately matters in a way that is different from what the individuals in his rally say or do. He is in a position of privilege that no ironic claims of being "just a comedian" can deny. 

It is on that basis that I think the "Rally for Sanity's" plea for consensus is problematic in the way that Sharma describes, which is that it denies the fact that, ontologically speaking, conflict is the essence of the political. The problem is rhetorical; it's not that The Daily Show depoliticizes its viewers, it's that the only political demands Stewart helps viewers to articulate are demands for consensus and rationality that don't effectively intervene in the spectacular debates that constitute U.S. politics. 

And that's where the problem of optics becomes important, not as empty spectacle, but as meaningful but limiting style. What I find depressing about the clip Sharma chose is not that its stupid or juvenile, but that Stewart seems resigned to the fact that political conversations can only take a certain, carefully defined form. He probably thought he was doing Occupy a favor by appropriating the familiar critique of protestors as fringe nutjobs, but I don't think that's an effective strategy. 

Thank you for your response Jonathan. I don’t want to come off as flippant but I’m attempting to make my argument in the space allowed. I also want to point out I think I’m doing more of a discourse analysis here than a textual analysis. I don’t disagree that audiences respond to different things but that’s not really my point. I am trying to say that the Daily Show presents politics as primarily about optics yet can not fully deal with optics that reject its circumscribed political view. The Daily Show is most focused on process and proper behavior of political actors (from voters to politicians to media). This is very different from saying it has no politics. Yes, the people who attended Stewart’s rally were engaged. I get that it might sound insulting saying it was all about optics for the Stewart rally participants (and would think the same courtesy should be given to the Occupy protesters), yet that’s the level at which the show and rally engaged with them. The participants were politically active and they were also playing at being politically active. The participants’ hand-signs exemplified this performance by echoing popular protest slogans with twists to express the (still inscrutable) goals of the rally to get along and “be reasonable”. The form of politicization the rally represented was not nothing and insignificant. My specific critique is it reduced politics as something to be done at an appropriate site expressed in an appropriate way through appropriate figureheads with appropriate messages. It made politics into a performance, divorcing it from its power and possibility. All protests attempt to make visible the conflicts that invisibly surround daily life. Optics are critical but they aren’t always pleasant or, most importantly, appropriate. The Daily Show cannot represent those uncomfortable aspects. To answer your question that if it doesn’t work, why do so many politicized people love the show, I would answer it does work. It works to smooth out irreducible grievances into mere disagreements and hold out an ideology of false consciousness, where if everyone only realized they were being lied to by others they’d be nice, get along, and there would be no problems and no need for politics at all.

I agree that TDS promotes both consensualization and pure ideological critique, the latter falling flat because it fails to account for the material conditions undergirding political positionality and potentiality. To recontextualize the discussion, I'd ask: Do Stewart or Colbert, through their shows or rallies, engage in parrhesiastic speech?

From a Foucauldian perspective, parrhesia erupts only under specific conditions of possibility. First, the parrhesiastes, or truth-speaker, must form an enunciative subjectivity, in which he or she becomes the subject of both the enunciation and the enunciandum (the speaker's belief). Second, a difference in status must exist between the parrhesiastes and his or her interlocutor, since parrhesiastical discourse involves a "risk of death." As Foucault makes clear, such a risk need not be literal; parrhesia can occur if one risks reputation, financial stability, or even friendship. Nonetheless, acts of parrhesia implicate the interlocutor's power to cause some type of injury to the parrhesiastes. Finally, parrhesia, dialogically situated, challenges prevailing authority and majoritarianism, placing the speaker in an oppositional discursive space to that of the interlocutor. 

I would argue that Stewart's and Colbert's satirical modes, however performative, problematize the Cartesian dogma supporting reductionist models of evidentiary compulsion; in political thoughtworlds governed by competing dualisms, satire may be the clearest way of overcoming binary oppositional constructs. As you point out, though, Stewart and Colbert occupy the same ontological space as their "opponents," something that is true even in the literal sense, since Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, ever the homogenizer of message and corporatizer of consolidated media. To be truly parrhesiastical, Stewart and Colbert would need to gesture toward the normative force of performativity - their own, as well as others - which, as Butler maintains, comes through the ability to circumscribe what qualifies as reiterable, signifiable being. As you point out, liberal democratic governmentalities foreclose agonistic politics as unlivable. And it is that exclusion that haunts the comedians' attempts to dissimulate the constitutive insecurity of political struggle beneath the veil of illocutionary harmony.

Robert, you write "it’s that the only political demands Stewart helps viewers to articulate are demands for consensus and rationality that don’t effectively intervene in the spectacular debates that constitute U.S. politics," but that assumes audience research. Maybe I am alone in a sea of tranquility, but I protest that The Daily Show has helped me articulate a great deal, and the demand for consensus in a political terrain marked by the likes of Akin and Walker has never, ever been one of them.

And to be clear, I invoked audience response not merely to suggest that audiences can resist texts, since I'd argue (and a fair deal of audience research into the matter, both by quantitative and qualitative folk suggests quite clearly) that the meanings I'm pulling from the show are not at all resistive -- they're falling in line with the text. I think that textual analysis backs this up too.

This leads back to the rally: you and Sudeep are seeing the texts and audience here as the text and audience of the rally. I'd agree it was pretty lame as a text, and its appeal to "all get along" and to find a "middle ground" was weak at best. But I'm looking at the number of people who showed up at the rally as an audience of the television show, and reading their politicization by the show and their desires (frustrated in many cases by the lameness of the rally, yes) for a politics that progressive, active, and corrective of many ills in the system, as in some ways evident by them showing up. Again, ethnographic work (done by Geoff Baym, Amber Day, and Jeff Jones, I believe) at the rally suggests this too.

Ultimately, I guess my beef is that, yes, we can point to moments when TDS shuts things down, but there are just as many moments when it opens them up. It's a significantly more complex text (admittedly, that may be hard to get across in an IMR post, but you tackled the whole show not just the clip).

 Jonathan, your point about the audience of the television program is a good one, and I agree with you that it's impossible to reduce a "program" like TDS to a single coherent text that always operates in one consistent manner. I don't want to characterize TDS as a "bad object." I too watch TDS regularly, and I often get something out of it. I also respect the ethnographic work you mention, but I think I'm in interested in the possibilities of a different kind of political moment than what this work describes. For me personally, part of the appeal of both Stewart and Colbert was the kind of interventions these performers seemed capable of making. I saw Stewart on Crossfire, and Colbert at the WHCD. They seemed able to participate in a way that I, as a fan, could not. I still take their power to do that seriously, which is one of the reasons I prefer the more enigmatic Colbert to Stewart, because he seems to be constantly searching for ways, like the creation of his SuperPAC, to use his media power to intervene in a political culture that seems increasingly disconnected. So I think I'm interested in a different political moment than the one you're describing, which is the moment when TDS's community of fans, who are indeed united in their desires for politics that are progressive, active, and corrective, have to confront some other identity whose difference cannot be incorporated or reconciled: i.e., those people who have radical demands, or who understand Stewart as simply a left-wing ideologue. It was that kind of political frontier that Stewart and Colbert initially conjured through their ironic inversions of the logic of spectacle, which  turned their status as outsiders and non-participants in the political culture into an articulation of that culture's systemic failure. And, as you point out, it was that kind of moment that the rally frustratingly failed to provide, and which the rhetoric of consensus that Stewart not always but often espouses is, in my view, ill equipped to handle. It contributes to a kind of paralysis in the face of pluralism that is why, I think, Fox News and right wing politicians are so adept at rhetorically outmaneuvering the left in this country.

I agree a lot more with this here. Cause of course the show could be better. The challenge is perhaps the same one we face with the teaching profession or mothers -- since they do so much heavy-lifting in society already, it's easy to expect them to do even more. So too with Stewart and Colbert, whose shows are light years ahead of most others in terms of contributing meaningfully to the public sphere and the polity at large. I don't mean to disarm criticism and say "can't we all just send Valentines to Stewart?", since that would be a lame form of academic praxis, and I think your response here puts its thumb really valuably on a key problem ... but I also worry that we might be expecting the world of the show. There's no small degree of irony here, in that while we might criticize the show for being spectacle, we sometimes do so in a way that suggests we just want more spectacle, rather than expecting the rest of the work to happen off-set, away from the television, and not beholden to what Stewart and Colbert are saying. I think here of an undergrad I had in 2004 who said that Eminem's "Mosh" video had "failed" because Bush won reelection, which seemed to posit that it was within Eminem's abilities to win it for Kerry: even when at its very, very best, the media will likely only chip away subtly and lightly at hegemonic structures, and the society of the spectacle exists in its truest form if we expect it to lead the revolution. (I know you're not saying it is -- indeed, your answer is way more nuanced than my reply here. I'm just riffing post-midnight ;-)  )

Hello, Sudeep. As a long-time fan of and someone who's researched/taught The Daily Show, it's hard for me to read a piece that disses my man! ;) 

I'm not sure where to begin, so I'll just ask what you mean that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was "much-maligned"? Aside from perhaps Fox News or Bill Maher (who was likely jealous of an event he could never pull off himself!), from whom and in what way was the event "maligned"? 

Reading through the thread above, it seems as though I'm the only one here who actually attended the Rally. And it's not just that my husband and I attended; we bought plane tickets and paid for our transportation, hotel room, and pet sitters on my piddly visiting assistant professor income. Like so many others in this country (whom Stewart/Colbert recognized on the mall that day), my husband was unemployed at the time, and I made pennies. In other words, attending the Rally was not a decision we made lightly. As such, I tend to side with Jonathan above who's considering "the number of people who showed up at the rally as an audience of the television show, and reading their politicization by the show and their desires [...] for a politics that progressive, active, and corrective of many ills in the system, as in some ways evident by them showing up."

I saw the televised Rally, and by all accounts, you're right: it was "lame." But that is not the Rally I (and thousands of others) attended, if that makes sense, i.e., being there was far different than what TV viewers experienced. In fact, I'd argue that the sense of community we experienced along with the feeling of being politically active (even if it's a sort of faux politicization) and, yes, the "restorative sanity" being dished out was indeed substantive -- at least to those in attendance. Although we struggled financially for a bit following the event, I will never regret traveling to D.C. that day.

There are a lot of interesting threads to pick up in this conversation, but I am going to limit myself to one particular point in the original post. Sudeep gestures to Stewart’s interview with Rachel Maddow as evidence that he is advocating for a retreat form left/right politics, but I don’t read that interview in the same way. Instead, I think both the substance of the rally as well as the point he is making with Maddow is that left/right politics are grotesquely misshapen by cable news. He frequently makes the assertion that rather than furthering or clarifying the debate, the news media obscures it by amplifying the self-interested spin created by political operatives. Indeed, I think his overall critique is not that we shouldn’t ultimately disagree with one another, but that we should disagree over substantive issues, not over the smoke and mirrors.

Stewart also seems to call on his viewers to demand more. As Jonathan points out, that doesn’t mean that is what each and every viewer is taking away from the program, but several studies have pointed to the far higher than average level of political knowledge and engagement amongst the show’s fans. Like Kelli, I was at the rally, and can confirm that what was happening onstage was almost incidental to the experience. Many of the people who I spoke to in the crowd were elated to finally have the opportunity to bodily attest to Stewart’s critique of the contemporary political conversation. Granted, Stewart stops short of telling his audience exactly how to demand more or where to go from there. However, he also does not pretend to be a political activist, nor a politician.

I get that contrarianism is what academics do best, but I find these sweeping generalizations and dismissals backed by popular press writing (devoid of any reference to qualitative or quantitative scholarship) generally unhelpful. Not sure where to begin since I tend to disagree with almost every sentence (from the Rally to the dismissal of the conversations), while several others here have contested these wild claims in the particulars. Perhaps best stated is Jonathan's remark of what an amazing burden this show has to bear to save the crappy state of political practice, engagement, and critique in the U.S. political/media system. Nobody is claiming that Stewart is a savior (the suggestion of which seems similar to that which right-wingers heap on Obama and his supporters). What has been pointed out is specific evidence of an opening up, as Jonathan also notes, of a variety of entry points to a changed televisual and non-televisual engagement with the political field (especially since much of what eminates from the news media/political professional nexus tends to control and shut down so many possibilities). And again, there's a wealth of writing that demonstrates exactly how that is done. 

Thank you all for your responses. There is much I agree with, especially the point you can not reduce the meaning of the show to a single text with one, totalizing reading. Also, it is wrong to expect The Daily Show to fix all of the problems with our political culture. Audience ethnographies are critical to understanding what meanings audiences gather and I understand important work has been done in that regard. The Daily Show is an often insightful and entertaining show that explodes dominate media narratives with a keen editorial eye. Obviously, it is a unique object that opens up many different possibilities and connections for fans that requires in-depth academic research. While it is easy to dismiss my perspective as contrarianism, I was trying to express how I, as a viewer and academic, frequently find the show alienating. I believe Robert Cavanagh's comments express it more eloquently, but moments like the included clip, where people who work in groups to achieve shared goals are ridiculed because they look strange, limit the power of politics to the ability to arrange spectacle. Though it is a much more open text than other political media, the focus on spectacle, optics and process makes The Daily Show more like most contemporary political media than an exceptional case. My admittedly polemical post was attempting to introduce the possibly objectionable idea The Daily Show is another dispiriting component of popular culture's engagement with the political. I greatly appreciate your time and consideration in reading and responding.

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