Local news satire lacks bite
It was in 2008 that a New York Times headline asked “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” Although not strictly addressed, the provocation was answered in part months later by a Time magazine poll that found Stewart to be, if not the nation’s most trusted man, then at least its most trusted news anchor. That such faith was placed in a professed “fake news” caster who employed a fluffy puppet named Gitmo as a special reporter was of concern, even and especially to the man himself. Stewart considered it less an honour than a protest vote and said that “a dildo wrapped in glitter” would have stood a chance if included with him as a survey option.
He had a point. As funny and as erudite as the freshly retired host of The Daily Show is, he is also a guy whose first real job was following Beavis and Butt-head on MTV.
That The Daily Show, a satirical evening digest of world events soon to resume with young host Trevor Noah, was a near two-decade delight is not in doubt. What is in doubt is the integrity of broadcast news itself, currently much less evident than glitter on a dildo. A range of US surveys finds younger people placing Stewart ahead of a pack in which he stubbornly insists he has no legitimate place. The basic cable comedian has even reportedly shunned offers to host network news and is currently doing his best to ignore 300,000 online signatories to a petition pleading with him to host the 2016 presidential debates. “I’m just a comedian,” is his principled reply.
Like his former protégés Stephen Colbert, set to occupy the Letterman slot in a matter of days, and John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight and in Australia this week for three soldout live shows, Stewart has acquired a gravitas he neither sought nor ever claimed.
Although local research bodies are yet to ask Australians directly about their new faith in comic news such as The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, a diminished faith in traditional news sources is clear. A Reuters Institute report published this year, which surveyed Australians of all ages, found trust in news sources was placed low on an international scale. By contrast, faith in the online “listicle” – the slight, bullet-point approach to issues, popularised by news site BuzzFeed – has increased, with the most highly educated young Australians tending to prefer this form.
Stewart, to be clear, has little in common with BuzzFeed. The local chapter of the online news service – whose greatest “investigative” achievement to date has been to report that former ALP leader Mark Latham may have said some crass things on Twitter – performs an old tabloid trick. It congratulates readers for their bias.
BuzzFeed flatters an audience into mistaking cynicism for fully formed views. For the most part, Charlie Pickering’s show on ABC does more or less the same. With a few exceptions, notably a timely report on proposed funding cuts to the cost-effective Custody Notification Service, Pickering has led a program that tailors news to a single punchline and conclusion. To wit: it’s all fucked.
Of course, it is all largely fucked and it is very clear that most of us think so. A Lowy Institute report from 2014 revealed democracy itself to be in question: nearly 60 per cent in the 18-29 age range were ambivalent towards the system. So, news services that are both cynical and comic meet the suspicions of the era but often do little but amplify this fault. What comic news often provides is not an exhortation to change but Nine Great Reasons Not To Be Surprised. The era of Woodstein it’s not.
But we have come to reasonably suspect even a Watergate moment of false revelation. A shock is no longer a shock. Nor does it carry with it the possibility of political redemption. Even the selfless and honourable work of citizen journalists such as Chelsea Manning fails to jolt us.
Disenchantment with current events, those who report them and the broader political process is clearly justified. The way this disenchantment is most often appeased, however, is not. Stewart’s particular skill, and that of former trainees Colbert and Oliver, is to engage beyond outraged cynicism. A mocking style may have lifted Stewart to prominence, but this was not retained without constant interrogation. Stewart did not just say “it’s fucked”; he showed us exactly how fucked it was, in meticulously fucked detail.
This love for detail tends not to fly in Australia. We’re at ease with our cynicism and disinclined to explore it with fervour. Here in Australia, we’d never produce, say, a disenchanted everyman such as Edward Snowden because our everymen were inoculated against disenchantment years ago. “She’ll be right” is not the cry of optimists but of the historically cynical. So, part of Stewart’s drive is down to the engagement that US liberal progressives have traditionally enjoyed with their nation – Americans feel not only that they have a voice but that they are obliged to make it heard. Part of his drive is also down, it must be said, to the fact that it can be funded into life.
So, we cannot blame Pickering entirely for a program whose aims exceed its execution. We must also blame funding, which can only buy analysis reheated from that week’s internet buffet instead of fresh, hot jolts. Working to a tight deadline and budget, writers are forced to let shaky cynicism substitute for knowledge. This program, very clearly derived from John Oliver’s impeccably researched Last Week Tonight, never had its high hopes costed. It aims to bring us informed irreverence. What it actually offers is something more like a vanity newsletter written by an underpaid youth worker.
And it brings us the reminder that Shaun Micallef’s marvellous Mad As Hell is no longer on the telly. Nor is his more bare bones but equally funny excursion on SBS, Newstopia. This absurdist is gifted not only with true talent but a true pragmatism that never drove him to try to “educate” his audience, but simply to write news-based jokes. If Micallef and his fastidious writing team ever had anything to prove, it was not that they held views of which large numbers of people would approve. It was that they found most things, and people, ridiculous. “I’m just a comedian.”
Stewart’s is not the funniest fake-news program TV ever produced – Colbert and Oliver have both served as better laugh-a-minute propositions, and Micallef is just more genetically funny than most mortals. But The Daily Show was the best because Stewart, like Micallef, never doubted the cathartic pleasure of a laugh.
Although initially conceived as a comedy, Ten’s The Project, of which Pickering was previously a host, has all but given up the attempt to write jokes. With the arrival of Waleed Aly, there was hope for gravitas in the place of gags. As it turned out, the appointment of a public intellectual on the network that brought us Neighbours worked to please a young audience but didn’t really restore political journalism to commercial TV. Now the program is without either laughs or analysis. Aly, a clear-headed centrist, may be both competent broadcaster and lettered scholar, but his skill set is sadly insufficient to lift this once-promising vehicle from variety-night mediocrity.
Aly is downright clever and Pickering, clearly, is quite bright, as are The Chaser, whose Media Circus makes an unwelcome return to ABC next month. But each program is doomed, both by the limitations of ego and the local market, to never deliver on its promise of funny news. Entertainers may wish to make us laugh and think, but without the big budget and big talent of a Stewart or an Oliver, they should probably keep that dual hope to themselves.
Stewart employed very, very funny writers. Called upon to review Battlefield Earth, John Travolta’s scientology delivery system masquerading as a film, he offered “a cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass”. Of 2000, the chaotic election year that would deliver him his first substantial audience, he said, “We’re still in the middle of either a) a constitutional crisis, or b) the funniest sitcom premise since She’s the Sheriff.”
The way Stewart became America’s most trusted newscaster, however, was not through wit alone. Nor was it simply through the efforts of his crack research team, although deep and reliable research certainly helped. He didn’t win trust, which even shows up among Republican voters, in being a liberal progressive.
Certainly, he was a funny, dependable liberal progressive who dependably amused his liberal progressive fans. But he dared to tell us that we weren’t so bright and informed as we liked to suspect. He adamantly refused to be anything more than a comedian, but what he did not refuse was the yoke of an authority that can, in a time that makes believe we’re all equally authoritative, be a great risk. By circuitous means, Stewart reminded us what TV news can achieve. Which is not just to confirm our suspicions that the world is miserable but to inform us and remind us that we are still, at times, naive. This is how we watch the very best news.
To Jon Stewart, Shaun Micallef, Colbert, Oliver, and all others who will forfeit their egos in the future service of a truly innovative news, shine on, you crazy dildos.
FESTIVAL Junction Arts Festival
Various venues, Launceston, September 2-6
CINEMA World of Women’s Cinema Festival
Various venues, Sydney, September 1-11
THEATRE Bad Jews
Alex Theatre, Melbourne, until September 13
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until September 5
THEATRE Mother and Sons
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until September 27
BALLET Imperial Russian Ballet Company: Swan Lake
Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane, September 3-4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "At wit’s end". Subscribe here.