May 8, 2008

Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined

The Daily Show is NOT Journalism

Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show frequently claim that their show is not a news show and should not be considered journalism. In the April interview with Moyers, Stewart denied that his show is made up of reporting and is instead, “a group of people that really feel that they want to write jokes about the absurdity that we see in government and the world and all that, and that’s it.”

Certainly, the focus here is humor and the content, while related to current events and people, is not meant to be a rendering of the day’s events—and in many cases is not a factual account of events at all.

Take, for example, a joke about an appearance before Congress by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 15. After introducing the segment, the show aired clips of people blasting the Administration and its Iraq Policy. The bulk was clips from actual Democratic senators but also in the mix was a clip from the movie The Breakfast Club. It ended with Gene Wilder as the character of Willy Wonka yelling, “You get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!” Added Stewart, “I don’t think I have seen Senator Wonka that mad.”

Viewers who rely on The Daily Show as a source of information must already know enough about the story and the pop culture reference to get the joke. Another basic way The Daily Show differs from traditional news programs is in the production cycle. The Daily Show airs four days a week (Monday through Thursday) and is prone to taking weeks off for regular sabbaticals where repeats are aired.

Because of this schedule, The Daily Show can find itself off the air when major events occur. For example, one news story that seemed ripe for comic coverage was the arrest of Senator Larry Craig for suspicion of lewd conduct in an airport bathroom. When the story broke on August 27, The Daily Show was on sabbatical. Stewart and company had to wait two weeks to comment on the scandal.

And as they often do with their self-reflexive brand of comedy, when they returned to the air, Stewart focused on the fact that his show was unable to attack the story as soon as it happened. “We are back, baby, from a two week break!” Stewart sarcastically announced. “Man! It was such a great break. And thank God that while we were on break we didn’t miss any inherently funny scandals…The first day! Senator Craig! He gets busted with the gay sex thing? It was my first day of vacation!”

Stewart then added that he wasn’t sad that he didn’t have the Larry Craig story to cover in real time, “because, I’ll tell you why, [it] didn’t feel like a Daily Show story to me. [Holds hand to ear as if listening to transmission in ear piece] Wait, I’m sorry, I’m being told it’s the only reason this show exists.”