Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Two Comedians, a Senator, and an Aging Institution

As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama, like Robert Kennedy before him, stands apart from the field of hopefuls by his easy and sincere ability to connect with young America. It only takes a moment to compare his campaign website, complete with social networking and a blog, to that of Senator Clinton or of Senator Edwards; Senator Obama mixes effortlessly with the Web 2.0 crowd, and more conspicuously, he seems equally at ease on the cover of fashion magazines (Men's Vogue) and the couches of our late night talk shows (Conan and The Daily Show). It is this natural ease that inspires both overblown praise and masked and bitter skepticism from the journalistic establishment (see Dowd below), as well as bewilderment, envy and careful praise from his fellow politicians.

Much in the same vein, the mainstream media display a similar uneasiness regarding Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It’s getting hard to listen to NPR (for some of us, it has always been difficult) without hearing one of its many deadpan hosts invoke a quotation or clip from a recent Daily Show or Colbert Report. Whatever keeps “Fresh Air” fresh, I guess. Their forced and awkward (the type of awkwardness found only in the slew of movies depicting old white women dancing and/or rapping)deference toward Stewart and Colbert only betrays their total cluelessness for whatever it is that the kids are listening to these days. You know, they’re like totally clueless, dude, and so un-rad, man. Like whatever, Pops.

For simplicity’s sake and for that of my argument, let’s narrow the aging mainstream media and their frustration for their own ineptitudes to one journalist, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Dowd was given the recent cover story in Rolling Stone, featuring an interview with Stewart and Colbert. And it may just be that I was not picking up on her deft ironic tone or her comedic wit, but her opening lines are retarded:

"I thought Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might be a little nervous to meet with me. I was the real news commentator, after all, and they were the mock. They threw spitballs at presidents; I interviewed presidents before throwing spitballs at them. I had crisscrossed the globe to cover news stories, while these guys just put on dark suits and threw up imported backgrounds on a green screen."

Yeah, I guess, Maureen.

Again, if you, the reader, are trying to grasp the moment that you felt such a similar sense of uneasy embarrassment for another person, please see photo above. Dowd follows this with what is either a carefully thought out and philosophically taut opening question, a joke that falls painfully on its face, or just a bad question:

Dowd: A fake news show, "The Daily Show," spawned a fake commentator, Colbert, who makes his own fake reality defending the fake reality of a real president, and has government officials on who know the joke but are still willing to be mocked by someone fake. Your shows are like mirrors within mirrors, using a cycle of fakery to get to the truth. You've tapped into a sense in society that nothing, from reality shows to Bushworld, is real anymore. Do you guys ever get confused by your hall of mirrors?

Stewart: I didn't know we were going to have to be high to do this interview.

Her interview style, which seems ripped from the stuffy 1960’s journalists who used to ask Bob Dylan what his message is. She ranges from broad personal opinion, “Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans or the Democrats were running it?”, to moments that reveal her deeper anxieties as a journalist: “Is there any way to bring young people, or all people, back to news?”. Dowd displays a similar approach to her Times column when, as she often does, she discusses Barack Obama – both condescending and awed at once – clearly fixated, but still able to bestow upon him such nicknames as “Obambi” and “Legally Blonde.” How cute! You really tapped into some happening pop culture puns there, Ms. Dowd. Maybe next time you could go with Ally McBama or wait, wait, wait…90210bama; that’ll sure grab the youth’s attention.

The walls are closing in for Dowd – the next two years she will be forced into writing about the Senator’s campaign while she and her colleagues pay increasing homage to Stewart and Colbert. In a moment that must have been both sheer terror and masochistic ecstasy for Dowd, these three figures that light the way to her oblivion are discussed at once during the Rolling Stone interview, when she asks, “But wouldn’t, say, a President Obama be harder to make fun of than these guys [the Bush administration]?” Luckily, we have Jon Stewart to return the question with the one I would like to ask her: “Are you kidding?”

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