I avoid watching network news whenever possible. Once in while, I will watch the last 5 minutes of the NBC Nightly News, and that’s only because Brian Williams is, like me, a sucker for stories about animals. If I happen to catch a story that holds some interest for me, I’ll go to news services on the web, making sure to read a few of them because that’s what it takes to find that little kernel of truth hidden between the lines.
Instead of network anchors, I find myself watching Comedy Central four nights a week. In fact, my television is programmed to go there automatically, because, sometimes, pushing three buttons seems like a lot of work – oh, and I don’t want to miss Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I am an unabashed fan, and I think that they are two of the smartest guys on television.
I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of smart people on television – there are. The difference is that this pair have figured out the networks, their competition and what brings viewers to come back for those four nights. No one is off limits when it comes to their opinions, including themselves. Their guests have better be prepared because these two certainly are. They’ve done their homework, so you might as well just check your ego at the door.
They, and their programs, have been both rewarded and harshly criticized for their efforts. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has won 12 Emmy Awards for writing and for best comedy. “The Colbert Report” has been nominated for 3 Emmys but lost to Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett and Don Rickles. At least Manilow was willing to enter in a joint custody agreement with Colbert, splitting the time the award spent with each. Both Stewart and Colbert have been on “Time” magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.
Some of their material has come under fire, from those in government to the star-filled audiences of the Academy Awards – two groups not best known for tolerating humor aimed in their direction. In 2006, Colbert was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Seated at the head table was President George Bush, who listened to the entertainer’s less than flattering view of the administration and the media. One particular portion ensured that he wouldn’t be asked back any time soon:
“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
What was first met with all kinds of righteous indignation was later heralded as political genius and Colbert’s status was changed forever. He had managed, in one night, to show an entire viewing audience that he could say what many of us were already thinking.
Washington, however, is not best known for catching on to things very quickly, and in 2010, Colbert was invited by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security. Committee members may have been expecting that beloved son of South Carolina, Stephen Colbert, but what they got was the very in-character host of “The Colbert Report”. The blame and shame for his committee statement were laid squarely at his feet, and he was criticized for trying to embarrass its’ members. What they couldn’t come to grips with was that they are very good at bringing on their own shame, and he was sending the message that, perhaps, you should be be more careful when you invite celebrity commentary.
Stewart had his share of bumpy appearances along the way, as well. He hosted the Grammy Awards in 2001 and 2002, and the Academy Awards in 2006 and 2008. The first time out of the batter’s box for each of the awards’ shows, he was, admittedly, not at his best. He found his rhythm for the second go-rounds, however, and even though the stars did not find him to show the proper level of reverence for their work, the viewing audience, as well as media critics, though that he had hit the right notes.
Stewart is not one to back down from anyone and a perfect example is an exchange he had with the host of CNN’s “Crossfire”, Tucker Carlson. The entertainer made no bones about the fact that he thought that “Crossfire” was less about honest debate and more about what he called “partisan hackery”. Carlson went on a counter attack and the exchange went from bad to worse. The more Carlson tried to push Stewart, the more he pushed back:
“Stewart said, “You’re on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?” In response to prods from Carlson, “Come on. Be funny,” Stewart said, “No, I’m not going to be your monkey.” Later in the show when Carlson jibed, “I do think you’re more fun on your show,” Stewart retorted, “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.” In response to Stewart’s criticisms, Carlson said, “You need to teach at a journalism school,” to which Stewart responded, “You need to go to one!”*
“Crossfire” was canceled a year later and Carlson is, well I don’t know where he is. The soon-to-be appointed President of CNN, Jonathan Klein, admitted this much about Stewart’s argument, “I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” Stewart has gone on to criticize the type of reporting done by CNBC and Fox News, as well, for their role in misleading viewers and distorting facts.
Yesterday, I wrote about the many problems we have with the likes of BravoTV. Wednesday night, I tuned in to Comedy Central and found myself laughing as Stewart presented his brand of news, including stories about bird flu and tax reform. Stewart told us how concerned he was with a decision by the World Health Organization to release the results of scientific tests on a mutated version of the avian flu to us. He asked, “Have they met us?” He reasoned that if shoe manufacturers had to put a warning on the little silica packets put into shoe boxes needed to be marked “Do Not Eat”, how could we be trusted with something that had the potential to kill millions. Hadn’t any of these geniuses seen what happened in “Jurassic Park”?
Colbert had an interview with Nancy Pelosi, something she swore on a stack of House Resolutions would never happen. Colbert asked her why, since it was Ash Wednesday and Nancy is a practicing Catholic, she had not received ashes yet. Ms. Pelosi said that she was going later, to which Colbert said that she should realize that his show airs just before midnight and was running out of time. The Speaker, in her own attempt at humor, said that it was still early in California. Colbert marveled at the revelation that only a long-time member of Congress could find a loophole that even Jesus hadn’t considered.
If you’re looking for something to watch late at night, give them a try. It’s a whole lot better than playing Bravo Andy’s drinking games.
(I know that I’ve probably bent my own rules about political stuff, but I don’t think that I’ve broken them, yet.)
* transcripts CNN.com – Crossfire, 10/15/04