Friday, August 18, 2006

VULGARITIES INACTION: TELEVISION NEWS STRUCTURE ON THE DAILY SHOW

Jon Stewart is an impeccably likable persona, but that doesn’t explain his popularity among politically-savvy crowds. It’s not like they give a flip about Conan O’Brien— although I would argue that they should. But while O’Brien is seen as something of a slapstick artist, Stewart has been accepted as a mainstream satirist, with a strong vein of topical humor coursing through his program’s panache. The Daily Show creates satire with television news techniques by appropriating the medium’s methodology for delivering information. As host, Stewart uses the narrative gathered by the mainstream media and reassembles it,[1] creating a formula for comedic discourse that relies on preexisting, unaltered documentary (meaning real world) footage. On most occasions, the mechanism for the jokes is derived from topics of reportage aired on more conventional news programming. The early segments of the show implement video clips that are analyzed through a formal configuration, but the resulting sequence is fundamentally different from its structural precedent. By introducing the clip and then showing it, Stewart sets up a joke, and delivers the punchline after the clip plays. This illustrates how the show can function, as one academic has suggested, “as both entertainment and news, simultaneously pop culture and public affairs.”[2]

Stewart mimics the effect of a television news anchor, which creates the appropriate framework for his parodies to function efficiently. Professor Robert Stam explains that the news anchor in a program conveys an illusion of omniscience. Stam defines them as “authentic heroes, whose words have godlike efficacy: their mere designation of an event calls forth instant illustration in the form of… live-action footage.”[3] Stewart’s multimedia comedy routine meets this criterion with conduct that resembles the presentation of news on other programs.

A comparative reading of the same reported story aired on both CNN Live Today and The Daily Show clarifies the two ways that this structure can be employed. When President George W. Bush was captured by an operating mic at the G8 Summit telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in reference to the freshly escalated conflict in the Middle East, that “Hezbollah needs to stop their shit,” the clandestine nature of the conversation and the unsettling vulgarity became the focus of segments on several television shows, including the two mentioned above.

On July 17, 2006, CNN Live Today aired this footage with bracketed commentary from one of the show’s anchors,[4] Ed Henry. Henry introduces the footage by setting up the impromptu moment, saying, ““I want to be clear, the leaders knew this was a photo opportunity. There was a microphone on the table. Tony Blair eventually turned the microphone off, but not before it recorded this.” After the footage rolls, Henry adds, “We played this tape for a White House spokesman, who said the president's words speak for themselves. The White House is not offering any further comment. The key exchange, of course, being the president, in rather explicit terms, saying that basically he believes the U.N. needs to…get Hezbollah to stop the violence.”[5]

Stewart used this same method for different means— to joke about the incident— later that day on The Daily Show. Like Henry, Stewart provides an introduction to the footage. “Apparently, our fearless leader caused quite a stir at the G8 Summit,” he says. “The microphones captured him in an unguarded moment.” The clip then plays, preparing the punchline for Stewart’s joke: “Actually, the media is making a big deal about the president cursing… Do you know how lucky we are that that’s all that was caught? I’m impressed the president was on topic… there’s just a good a chance that the microphones could’ve picked him up pointing out some [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel cameltoe.”[6]

Stewart’s routine reflects Henry’s presentation of the story. Both introduce the footage and then offer commentary after the clip plays. But while Henry’s analysis presumably intends to convey seriousness, Stewart uses it for comedic effect, creating satire. This is not the sort of thing you’ll ever see on Conan’s show, which takes more liberties in its presentation of recent events. While Stewart will mock authentic footage, Conan often engages in dialogue with a fake Bush who appears on a video screen. I find both routines hilarious almost without fail, but they are fundamentally different. Stewart deconstructs the insanities of our times; Conan jovially embodies them.



[1] Professor Joe Cutbirth, lecture notes, July 26, 2006.

[2] Baym, Geoffrey. “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism.” in Political Communication. Taylor & Francis Inc., 2005. pg. 262

[3] Stam, Robert. “Television News and Its Spectator.” In Regarding Television: Critical Approaches— An Anthology. California: The American Film Institute, 1983. pg. 27

[4] CNN Live Today officially lists Henry as “CNN White House Correspondent.”

[5] CNN Live Today, July 17, 2006.

[6] The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, July 17, 2006.

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