If you harbor dreams of one day going on a hunting trip with former Vice President Dick Cheney, you should probably skip ahead now. If you own more than one “Grizzly Moms for Sarah Palin” T-shirts and wear them, cleaned and pressed, with no trace of irony, you might want to head over to the Sports section. If you hold dark, secret fantasies about Fox News host Sean Hannity – and I can’t possibly be alone in this, can I? – you’ll want to move on.
We’re only trying to protect you.
Protect you, that is, from the heresy and revisionist history that is Chris Smith’s oral history of the Josef Goebbels of the Left Wing, Jon Stewart, and his years as de facto minister of information for that known subversive organization Comedy Central and its “The Daily Show.”
It was Stewart, after all, who, hiding behind the cloak of comedy and aided and abetted by fellow travelers Stephen Colbert, Aasif Mandvi, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Jessica Williams, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, Wyatt Cenac, Michael Che, as well as a cast of dozens of writers and production staffers, brought down a nation.
OK, maybe “brought down a nation” is a little strong, but they poked fun at President George W. Bush, Cheney, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Palin and many other patriots, often through the insidious practice of … showing them on film.
For their part, Stewart and his former associates are quick to assert that “The Daily Show” had little if any tangible, lasting impact on American politics and the media coverage thereof (amply evidenced by CNN’s Jeff Zucker’s recent, feckless “mistakes were made” public mea culpa for elements of that network’s 2016 presidential election coverage).
What the subjects of Smith’s book will own up to is producing a pretty funny little comedy show with a sharp point of view and a dogged determination to find and tell stories that illuminated not only issues of the day but also the failings of mainstream media outlets to get after – and stay after – those issues.
In the process, Smith hearkens back to those heady days when “fake news” meant comics playing anchormen and reporters on TV, and (almost) everybody being in on the joke, rather than the online chicanery that that phrase has come to connote.
Those seeking revelations of the vast left-wing conspiracy underlying and even driving the show will be disappointed – that book is not here, it doesn’t exist and it likely never will. Instead, Smith gives readers sound bites from some smart, funny and self-aware people waxing rhapsodic about their “let’s put on a show” adventures and sometimes apoplectic about the circumstances that goaded and vexed them into undertaking them.
There is, of course, Stewart, front and center, looking to redeem himself from an earlier TV cancellation by retooling the underperforming show he inherited from Craig Kilborn. There is a cast of funny people, some on-camera talents, others behind it, who helped Stewart take “The Daily Show” in the edgy, sometimes caustic direction that helped recast it as appointment viewing. “I’m sure we did viewership research at some point,” recalls Chicagoan David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “There was a measurable number of people who said they got their news from ‘The Daily Show,’ which probably would frighten Jon.”
And, perhaps most surprisingly, there are several of the show’s targets, among them John McCain, Anthony Weiner and Glenn Beck, who are here given the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Fox News commentator Bernard Goldberg puts it thusly:
“The idea that Jon Stewart is above it all, and he sees hypocrisy and goes after it in an even-handed way is ridiculous. He doesn’t. He lets his ideology trump his intelligence, because if he didn’t, he’d go after liberal hypocrisy with the same gusto that he does when he goes after conservative hypocrisy and stupidity.”
Is “The Daily Show (The Book),” ahem, fair and balanced? Well, no. The principals here – Stewart especially – are challenged, really, only by themselves and their own self-doubt. But the seeming candor of Stewart in particular gives the book a refreshing amount of depth, particularly regarding backstage drama (a writer’s strike, a heated exchange with correspondent Cenac, interviews with McCain and Jennifer Love Hewitt that went badly) and questions of double standards (Stewart accuses himself of going soft on John Kerry and Obama).
But questions of whether Stewart and his show were even-handed in their handling of the politics of the day misses the point. The late British Prime Minister Robert Walpole could no doubt reasonably aim the same sorts of charges at his adversaries, but that wouldn’t negate the value of the political satire that emanated from the pens of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope or John Gay.
And in the end, the real measure of the show and the book that bears its name is, did it have a point, and, more so, was it funny in making it? The answer, on both counts, is a resounding, laugh-out-loud “yes.”
“The Daily Show (The Book)”
By Chris Smith
Grand Central, 459 pages