Saturday, May 2, 2009

Just Kidding! Ltd.

My take on "The Daily Show" is a tad personal, though this has faded through time. In late-1997/early-'98, I was swamped with "Mr. Mike," scheduled for release in July '98. I had spent the previous three years consumed by Michael O'Donoghue, the National Lampoon and SNL, and was pretty burned out, wrestling with publishing company bullshit, making sure that every change had been set, anticipating wrath and anger from who-knew-where, given the wild mix of egos and temperaments I'd dealt with. And so on.

Then an acquaintance at Comedy Central suggested that I submit a package to TDS. With a book about a comedy legend coming out, and having already written for Bill Maher, TDS would be the perfect next move. While it wasn't my favorite show, I did find a lot of it funny. One bit that stood out was a parody of the Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy, with the Star of David on the White House. That an American comedy show even knew what ZOG was amused me, so I began to write numerous fake news stories and remote pieces.

I was helped along by a guy who knew the show's producer, which gave me added edge. TDS was then hosted by Craig Kilborn, who was too smug for my taste, his Sports Center snark empty and obvious. But much of the writing behind Kilborn was first-rate, no surprise given that talents like A. Whitney Brown were involved. This inspired me to really bring it, which was a test since I was wearily emerging from book writing mode, a different set of muscles from tapping out bits. After a couple of weeks, I sent my finished submission around to a few friends, testing the waters.

The reactions were uniform: this was good stuff, perhaps a bit dark for TDS, but solid. The package then went to the show's producer, the early feedback upbeat. But that's typical. The promise of helping a franchise always elicits smiles and thumbs' up -- until the moment of truth, when the decision to allow this-or-that lunatic on staff is made. It seemed that my material was indeed too dark for TDS. That was the gist I was getting. But I also think that it was too political. Some of my references went beyond generalized definitions and specifically dealt with US criminality and all that goes with it. There were plenty of mainstream jokes as well, but not enough to lighten the dark shit. Whatever early rawness TDS possessed, the show was moving toward a more acceptable place in the culture. Around this time, Whitney Brown left TDS, further weakening its satirical punch.

When Kilborn left to engage Conan O'Brien in late night, Jon Stewart took over, ensuring that TDS would become the mainstream darling it remains today. Nothing against Stewart, who does a fine if sometimes frenzied job behind the desk. But before TDS, Stewart was not known as a satirist, certainly not in a Krassner/Crimmins/Whitney Brown way. Then again, had he been as cutting as those three, Stewart would never have been given the TDS gig in the first place. Stewart's popularity, especially among white liberals, ensures that he'll remain pretty much in the same spot -- so long as the ratings hold, and Comedy Central doesn't lose significant ad revenue.

At best, Jon Stewart serves as a corporate release valve, letting off permissible steam when the American machine overheats. This is pretty much what "satire" has been reduced to. The Realist, Terry Southern, and the original Lampoon have never been deader.

Also, most American comics are deeply apolitical; and those who riff on "current events" usually operate well within shared assumptions about politics, history, and US power. Which is why Stewart's recent comment about Harry Truman stood out.

Responding to Cliff "Torture can be good" May's point that if Bush is a war criminal, then Truman's nuking of Hiroshima must have been an even worse crime, given the comparable damage, and Stewart's outrage at Bush (which Stewart bases on the fantasy notion that the Bush gang undermined basic American "values," a popular liberal talking point that'll never die). Amazingly, Stewart agreed that yes, Truman was a war criminal, though Stewart would've preferred a demonstration explosion near Japan before moving to the human ash/melted flesh phase.

Domestic reactionaries went predictably nuts. They may be in the electoral minority for now, but they know red meat when when they smell it. And nothing sets them off like a "media elite liberal" like Stewart besmirching our nation's fine name and God-fearing reputation. While there have been serious debates about Truman's use of nuclear terror, countless Americans of varied views still think that Truman did the right thing, for reasons that run from the million-American-dead-through-land-invasion argument, to the simple, more pleasing position that the US can do whatever it wants, especially in war, and that the idea that America commits war crimes is insane if not treasonous.

Up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after, US planes firebombed numerous Japanese cities, unleashing mass murder on the civilian population, something that had the Tokyo trials after the war been at all impartial, would decidedly rank with imperial Japan's monstrous conduct in Asia. But war crimes trials are never impartial and serve to justify and excuse crimes committed by those powers conducting the trials. Stewart could've added the reason why there was an Asian war in the first place, hostilities that began well before Pearl Harbor. Hell, he could've mentioned Truman's war crimes in Korea, killing millions.

Instead, Stewart did what well-regarded mainstream entertainers do when expressing an unpopular opinion. He groveled for forgiveness.

"The other night we had on Cliff May. He was on, we were discussing torture, back and forth, very spirited discussion, very enjoyable. And I may have mentioned during the discussion we were having that Harry Truman was a war criminal. And right after saying it, I thought to myself that was dumb. And it was dumb. Stupid in fact. So I shouldn't have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don't believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say. Which, by the way, as it was coming out of your mouth, you ever do that, where you're saying something, and as it's coming out you're like, 'What the f**k, nyah?' And it just sat in there for a couple of days, just sitting going, 'No, no, he wasn't, and you should really say that out loud on the show.' So I am, right now, and, man, ew. Sorry. And, Warren G. Harding was a [bleeped, unintelligible]."

When an American "satirist" apologizes for stating the truth, you can really appreciate "free expression" in a corporate-owned culture. Still, I enjoy Stewart, despite his pathetic ass-covering. Besides, he has to keep TDS anchor chair clean and warm for when Seth Meyers replaces him. It's all about continuity, baby.