“Men become old when their hurt becomes need.” — Joe Henry
I’ve been watching the return of Jon Stewart to a kind of network tv nervously. His new show starts September 30 on Apple TV+, and regardless of the “network” chosen (one imagines Apple paid dearly for the contract), his return to the screen marks an attempted return to a kind of world I’m not sure we live in anymore.
I don’t hang out in the right circles to have much familiarity with it, but I gather from Matt Braunger’s podcast that people (see: academics and ex-academics) have been spending the interim years since Stewart retired Writing A Lot About Comedy. And that sounds exhausting. Necessary, maybe, but exhausting nonetheless. Not because critical thinking isn’t important here, but because, unless you’re totally without conscience, you can’t go too far down that road without finding yourself, on some level, culpable for the kind of misinformation and willful idiocy that placed us where we are today.
Remember fake news? Before Trump, I mean? Yeah, you had forgotten it pre-existed him, huh. But it did. Stewart would trot that phrase out to defend himself when conservatives accused him of shaping the world-views of young people toward a liberal bent. And he wasn’t wrong. It was a comedy show. He is a comedian. If college kids chose to take his comedy as truth, chose to use him comedy show as their source for news, is that really his fault?
I mean…look at these anti-vaxxers choking down horse paste and iodine. They got their garbage information from Facebook and Reddit, both of whom allowed that information to spread via their services, and who made money, at least in part, off the continued success their services enjoyed as a result of that leniency. If you exonerate Stewart, you have to exonerate them, too. And that’s a slippery slope.
Understand that I loved Stewart’s show, that it absolutely shaped my worldview in college (though it was far from my only source of information; oh for the time to read as much as I did then!), and that I deeply value comedy both as a performance and an exploration of the limits of psychological endurance. Because that’s what good comedy (stand-up! don’t talk to me about improv; it’s like the rictus grin in the face of the headlights) does—it makes bearable the unbearable, because you are brought to find something laughable, and therefore light, in it.
And I don’t like that the end result of this line of thinking seems to be “yeah but then maybe the unbearable shouldn’t be made bearable.” Because that leaves a lot of us up shit creek. But the moral calculus required to enjoy comedy about current events without guilt is deeply suspect. It helps when you know, through sources other than the spotlit mic (interviews or podcasts or blogs or whatever) that the comic’s kneejerk reaction isn’t just to sneer at the sorry lot of people in worse shape than him. It helps when you hear him express disgust at comics who preen in the adoration of really horrible people, people who you know do shitty things and vote for those who will encourage more of the same.
But still. Even as I’m laughing some part of me is blaring a warning to untangle the news from the comedy, because it’s dangerous to imbibe as one. Even if you set current events aside and look at history—the excellent podcast The Dollop, for example, by Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, which I discovered by accident when Matt Braunger had Anthony on as a guest host on his This Might Help show. (Lest I sound like one of these insufferable people who beats you over the head with endless podcasts You Just Have To Listen To, I may as well point out that these are the only ones I’ve been listening to with any regularity, and it’s largely due to the pre-show banter. I miss hearing storytellers talk to each other. I miss hearing people talk about their craft casually, when it’s not the main point of the gathering but it comes up anyway. That’s why I put these guys in my headphones when knitting. Also, it’s nice to hear of people at least within a ten year radius of me who are decent parents. Lots of shitty parenting going on out there right now. And I don’t have any friends who are parents, so these podcast guys are all I’ve got.)
Let it be known, first and foremost, that The Dollop provides references. Lots of them. The show consists of researched stories from history, told by Anthony, while Reynolds (who does not know the topic beforehand) riffs off them. I enjoy history, but the topics they delve into (the year of the locust of 1895? Napoleon’s sister-in-law?) are frequently things I’ve only ever glossed over if that, or the timing is recent enough that my schooling either skipped it for political purposes or assumed I’d know about it already.
Such was the case with the sprawling two-part episode about Ronald Reagan, for which they invited Patton Oswalt on as a guest host (to contribute to the riffing). Now, I was either not yet born or a baby for Reagan’s tenure as President, which meant by the time I was in school the history books were just old enough to mention him but that was it. We just barely touched on him in American history, crammed between test prep in a rush toward the end of the school year, and it wasn’t until a government class taught by someone whose brother was royally fucked out of an education by Reagan’s cost-cutting that any bad policies were gone into detail. And even that was brief, because of course the extremely loud kids of conservative families opened their mouths, and rather than derail the entire class arguing politics with assholes who would only get their parents involved if engaged in political arguments, we moved on.
All of which I mention to ground the fact that to me that history is news. And I took it in from comedians. Did I know Reagan did bad shit? Yup. Did I know that rather than Trump-like malice he was made a puppet by scheming shitbags precisely because of his lack of motivation, paired with a well- and publicly-documented case of early-onset Alzheimer’s? Nooooo. I’ve little doubt that some republicans hold up his illness as a plea to make him untouchable, oh the poor man how can you make fun of him, blah blah. But having watched my mother succumb to that disease for a decade, I am secure in the knowledge that absolutely no way in hell should such people be in charge of their own bank accounts, let alone entire countries. (Even my mom knew this—she stopped driving and signed everything over immediately out of fear of what she might do.)
It’s on me, definitely, not to have known the seedier details of Reagan’s doings, especially when he’s held up as a saint by people running for office today. It’s on me for not knowing the watchwords of the competition. But realistically there is only so much history (or science, or economics, etc) one can be expected to know, while still going about one’s life. And that’s the problem. Because while on an academic schedule I had the time and means to make this history my business (and thus my failure to do so is my fault), most people don’t have that, and so play catch-up (or don’t) as best they can, as required by the normal course of their lives. And that means taking in history from whatever sources present themselves. And when the source of that knowledge that you should already have comes couched in comedic language intended, on some level, to entertain, it seems problematic. Not because we don’t deserve entertainment! Not because some form of it isn’t required to survive! But because by intermingling knowledge with pleasure it invites you to confuse the two. And then when you take jokes as fact, as people did with Jon Stewart and continue to do with far more odious and sinister hucksters like Tucker Carlson, the showmen can put throw up their hands and say hey, not my fault people are idiots, I’m not a news show and never claimed to be.
At some point, what you billed yourself as matters less than what you became. And you need to own up to that and either accept the responsibility you acquired for yourself, or step down. That sounds terrible and like it’s anti-fun, I know. But you can’t “not my problem” the electorate. They will become your problem. They are everyone’s problem. So deal with it. And don’t hide behind the “Ey, I’m just a funny guy!” schmooze. That’s how you get where we are today.
(Note: the Reagan episode of The Dollop—episode 400–is immensely entertaining and I highly recommend it. I use it here more as an example of a personal failing on my part to have read up already on something, than as an example of comedy run amok, or whatever clickbait-y title one might append to navel-gazing like I do here. Again, The Dollop is rife with sources, which places it in far more reliable, earnest territory than something like The Daily Show was. I just hope the new Stewart show is as up-front about its research. And that there is research, not just laughs.)