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Laughing on the Inside

Saturday's National Mall event wasn't a rally, it was a cult meeting.

5:16 PM, Nov 1, 2010 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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Every joke here is a sort of inside joke. That's not a problem in itself: Our best comedians manage to make their inside jokes universal. They are people we laugh at, laugh with, laugh from—because we essentially love them, and their special conflict with a strange world reflects our own in subtle ways. How much we love them depends on how real, unique, and interesting their personality is; but it must at least stand on its own, beyond the whims and consciousness of a particular audience. The problem with Stewart/Colbert is that they are their audience, nothing more and nothing less. Stephen Colbert self-deprecates with a fake self. Jon Stewart starts with punchlines which the presumptions of his viewers have already set up, then hides in his audience whenever the light's too strong. Imagine Voltaire or H.L. Mencken ever using the phrase “just joking.” To the true satirist, “just joking” is an oxymoron. Yet Stewart claims comic immunity any time he's criticized for sucking up, just as he coyly slips out of it, when convenient, to attack. The vanishing act demeans his art and undermines his actual triumphs. No true satirist uses the title as an excuse.

Stewart's chief triumph offers a case in point. It happened in March 2009, the night Jim Cramer came on The Daily Show to be blindsided by old footage of himself boasting of his market chicanery as the manager of a hedge fund. For this he was justly grilled, wrapped, and served on a platter. Yet I couldn't help feeling slightly sorry for the fiend. Though The Daily Show took plenty of shots at CNBC leading up the interview, Cramer had the look of a dinner guest whose host suddenly starts stabbing him with a spork, and how could anyone blame him?

When I just wrote that I felt sorry for Cramer, I was probably lying. No, I'm sure I was lying. But I do know that the pleasure of watching him suffer was somehow, in some way mixed. I get the same feeling when mixing alcohol and company, and I don't like it. Cramer's public torture should have been an occasion of pure joy, but something was responsible for diluting it. Something very dangerous. Fear of that something, I think, is what drives so many of us away from the Stewart camp.

Perhaps my Cramer experience won't alarm you. If not, please consider one thing. As the humor of the public gets more private and more personal—and, no doubt, much funnier than it was in the days of in-law jokes and Broadway musicals—consider the possibility that there's a self to be lost in the merger. It's a sad and lonesome world when you can no longer get your own inside jokes.

Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.

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