Ever since then-CNN president Jon Klein declared himself “firmly in the Jon Stewart camp” after the comedian's bombastic appearance on Crossfire in 2004, something like an anti-cult has formed around that very camp—including as it does The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the many books and franchises of its hosts. When the CNN anchor Rick Sanchez exploded against Stewart recently on the radio, he became only the latest public figure to join this anti-cult, and not the first to do so in a slightly deranged manner that ended up costing his job.
The first to do so in such a manner was Lee Siegel of the New Republic. “Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be,” Siegel notoriously observed, under a pseudonym, in the comments section of his own blog. But not all members are so overblown. Last year in the Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens reported the “vaguely alarming” feeling of being admired all around for an appearance on The Daily Show, before concluding that “a liberal joke, at present, is no laughing matter.” Camille Paglia has repeatedly and calmly noted her attempts to avoid Jon Stewart “like the plague.” Even Stewart himself, dismayed by the imbalance of laughter and applause from his audience, flirts with membership from time to time.
As you can see, membership in this anti-cult is not limited to annoyed conservatives. Members come from all walks of cultural life and political affinity. Give or take an envious rival, they are an intelligent, sensitive, well-informed, generally awesome bunch. I am one of them.
Like most of my fellow anti-cultists, I don't deny the comic talents of the Stewart camp; I know their gags can hit gold. I'm grateful for the emergence through their channels of Steve Carrell, if not Lewis Black. I respect Chicago’s Second City improv school where they trained. Though darlings of the liberal-left orthodoxy, deviating from it on nothing at all, their politics don't account for the problem, either. What, then, explains it? Why do I and so many others find it impossible to watch even a few minutes of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report without hurting the remote in our haste to switch channels? Why did we look upon the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, staged in Washington on Halloween eve, to be one of those nightmares from which a reading of Thomas L. Friedman: Selected Sonnets would be a welcome respite?
The answer can be found in Max Beerbohm. In a century-old essay entitled “The Humour of the Public,” the Incomparable Max laid out better than anyone the difference between what is actually funny and what is merely supposed to be. He wrote,
It would be impossible for any one of us to define what are the things that amuse him. For him the wind of humour bloweth where it listeth. He finds jokes in the unlikeliest places. Indeed, it is only there that he finds them at all. . . . The jokes that he loves are those quiet jokes which have no apparent point—the jokes which never can surrender their secret, and so can never pall. His humour is an indistinguishable part of his soul, and the things that stir it are indistinguishable from the world around him.
Against this individual sense of humor screams the humor of the public: formulaic, garish, common. “Unless a joke hits in the eye, drawing forth a shower of illuminative sparks, all is darkness” for the latter. “Unless a joke be labeled 'Comic. Come! why don't you laugh?' the public is quite silent.” Private laughter, as Beerbohm describes it, laughs hardest in the company of a few good friends, whereas public laughter echoes hollow from the dreary cues of “humorists” on page or stage.
Beerbohm hated groups, so I'm sure he would have hated the Stewart camp today; but his distinctions do a lot to explain its success. Sophisticated comedy has left behind much of the traditional ba-da-bing manner in search of those “quiet jokes” that belong to private experience. For Daily Show fans, Stewart is a likable fellow who encounters the daily current of events with the same awe and frustration they do, reacting just as they would if they were funny. Tuning in often feels like eavesdropping on a dinner party of a few million good friends. The warm chuckles. The winks and nods. The occasional break into silly rapture. Now and then the mood gets serious and somebody laments, “Fox! News O'Reilly Fox News Hannity fair and balanced Britt Hume, Fox!”—and after awhile the language might sound a little foreign, the air gets a little thick, and you begin to suspect you weren't invited. You look for a way out.
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.