I used to joke that, “Americans are a very self-loathing people; it’s one of the things I really can’t stand about us.” I stopped telling that joke because whenever I did, to my disappointment, no one ever seemed to get it.
The funny thing about America is that when ever you’re trying to be funny people take you seriously, and when you’re trying to be serious, people take you for a killjoy. There’s no place anymore, it seems, for an authentic, dynamic relationship to one’s experience that maintains a distance from that experience; no place for cleverness, no place for wit. In the last 15 years or so, comedy has become a deeply serious business, and this is the fault of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
In reality, it’s a problem of centralized media, of September 11th and its repercussions, and of the general contortions of cowardice from which the majority builds their opinions, but The Daily Show, along with its spin-offs and contemporaries (The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Onion), have done more than anything else to blur the line between serious and funny in our time.
Comedy in this country has been turned into sound bite speech-writing for the masses, and what Jon Stewart says today will be half of everyone’s earnest opinion tomorrow. The other half, unfortunately seems to be taken up by the maniacal, over-the-top infotainment of FoxNews, CNN, and the rest. The news media ruined the discourse, and the fake news media ruined the conversation.
And ultimately this isn’t a cut on Stewart or Colbert, or even what they do; it’s a cut on their audience. It’s a cut on all of those who allow their world to be defined by the best thing they’ve heard on television in the last week, and who allow the talking box to tell them how they feel, what they think, and what it’s really all about.
Everything is a statement these days, and whether it’s comedy in the media or dialog between individuals, every facet of our common dialog has been conscripted into the political sphere. People have lost the will to be candid and prosaic, and more importantly, they have lost the ability to be flippant. There’s no place for an observation, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, that isn’t meant to cut to the quick of our modern times and explain to everyone what is really going on. If one is to say something that people can get behind it has to be quotable, or more often, plagiarizable for years to come; it has to be activist, to be useful. In short, there’s no place anymore for silly.
The rise of political comedy has led to an an arms race of rightier-than-thou, an epidemic of laughing overseriousness, and it’s caused this inversion where regular people care more about how others jest than what either party actually believes. Perhaps, what’s worse, it’s gotten people to forget the difference.
I don’t know what the remedy is for this kind of non-committal always/never point-making, but it couldn’t hurt for people to watch less TV and read more books. Maybe if people tuned out for a while and stopped rewarding themselves for echoing the pseudo-sophistication of the mass communication networks we might get somewhere. Maybe if people thought for themselves we might be able to laugh again.