Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Daily Show: So over?

Maybe it's just me -- although I don't think it is -- but has the Daily Show gotten incredibly stale lately? At this point, I just slog through it because a) there's nothing else on TV at 10pm and b) I can't wait for the Colbert Report, which has put the Daily Show to shame over the past couple of years.

To me, the Daily Show's best weapon is its incredible tape library, and its willingness to challenge people on the things they say. It also works incredibly well when it makes fun of the ridiculousness of cable and network news.

My favorite thing the show does is when it will play a clip of something someone said the day before, then compare that with something they said two years or three months or even a week earlier that completely contradicts what they just said. In that, it does a fantastic job of attempting to keep politicians and officials honest, when cable and network news never has the guts do to anything like that.

The other thing the show does well is when it takes something like the State of the Union address or Alberto Gonzalez's testimony before the Senate, and keeps a count of how many times the President says "liberty" and "freedom" or how many times Gonzalez says "I don't recall" (64 times, if you're counting, according to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). It illustrates just how much these people try to stay "on message," at the expense of concrete promises and believeable answers.

Additionally, it's fantastic at keeping tabs on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and even local news affiliates (such as when it made fun of the attack ads that one Fort Wayne station ran against another's weather team). It shows us how ill-informed their anchors can be, and how the incessant cycle of 24-hour news networks can lead to some terrible news coverage.

Indeed, the show does seem to have the ethos that the world would be a lot better off without constant cable news and pundits (its "Great Moments in Punditry" series, where kids read transcripts of arguments between TV commentators, merely serves to remind us how ridiculous 90 percent of the things they say are). Jon Stewart's demolition of "Crossfire" for emphasizing the differences between America rather than embracing constructive goals we can work toward together is a part of this as well. The Daily Show, by mocking TV news, does, I think, hope to make TV news respond to the criticism and deliver better journalism rather than the puff pieces, weird news and silly human interest stories that we see all to frequently. And through the way it satirizes those stories (e.g. the piece it did a while bHack about a guy who guards the US-Canadian border in Vermont for illegal immigrants) does make it a goal to snap TV news out of the lazy holding pattern it's been in recently. And it's actually changed the profession -- we no longer use those reporter reaction reverse shots as much because the Daily Show has made such light of them. And for this it should be commended.

So if I think the show does so much well, why do I think it's gotten so bad? Well, the problem is, it hardly does any of these things anymore. Instead, it's now more of the Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" variety, which is "Have person say first half of sentence, cut to anchor, have anchor deliver punchline completely different from person's intended end of sentence." Yuk, yuk, yuk. There's nothing particularly brilliant about writing a bad joke from an easy set-up. And while Weekend Update is occasionally funny, it's only on once a week. When you get that same style four days straight, it becomes tiresome.

And while the satire of those long feature packages was clever at first, I think the shtick has worn off. Now, we know what we're getting and it just doesn't have the same resonance.

Finally, there's the problem with Stewart. He's a solid enough host, but he differs from a real news anchor in that he tries to put himself front and center in an obnoxious way. Sure, anchors are prima donnas a bit, but Stewart is over the top, to the point where it's beyond satire. His imitation of President Bush's voice, his high-pitched "Nutty Professor" whine, and his mannerisms during the show generally have just gotten more prevalent lately, which has made the show worse.

The joke with the Daily Show should be all the ridiculous things our leaders say -- especially on CSPAN (see Sen. Ted Stevens' comment about the Internet being a series of tubes) -- that go uncovered in the mainstream media. The joke shouldn't be made by Stewart preening in front of the camera.

Meanwhile, Stewart is a very good interviewer -- when he has someone on who is worthy of being interviewed. He's great with authors, politicians, officials, business leaders and other journalists. I think the guest list should be limited to those people. But far too often, it's actors, musicians and other celebrities -- people who, generally, have very little of substance to say. How can Stewart not find it hypocritical when he and his writers make such fun of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but then he turns around and wastes six minutes of the show having a random actor pimping a movie on as a guest?

One more quick point: I think my view on this has been impacted by the launch of the Colbert Report. The writing for Colbert is far fresher, the formula less stale, the host far more engaging, the satire more blazing, and the segments just more downright hilarious. I realize some of the Daily Show's decline could be because it lost a number of writers to Colbert, but as I mentioned above, the show can do what it does best without a tremendous writing staff. All it needs is a bunch of interns logging tape.

I'm curious what you all think: Has the Daily Show lost something off its fastball? Has it jumped the shark? Has it been eaten by the shark that is Colbert? Let me have it.


At Saturday, April 28, 2007, Blogger MK said...

I stopped watching The Daily Show when Craig Kilborn left! Since Jon Stewart took over, the show has obviously become wildly more popular than the Kilborn days. Kilborn's show was more silly news and entertainment. The show became much more about political news and mocking TV news when Stewart took over. Maybe because I already know how the 24 news cycle makes journalism difficult or that politicians say stupid things, I rarely watch the Daily Show. It still gets great guests and those are always really interesting to watch, but the content of the show has gotten a little old. And the fact that so many of the "correspondents" go on to careers elsewhere (Colbert, Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry) makes the show seem less like a destination. Let's remember that the Daily Show has been around longer than Jon Stewart has hosted it and maybe its time for a new crew to take over, redirect again and pair up with the The Colbert Report.

At Saturday, April 28, 2007, Blogger L.C. said...

Maybe a shake-up of sorts is in order, but it still speaks volumes that The Daily Show has become the force it is in today's media world. Whether or not it's as sharp as it once was, it's become such an influential point of referrence on where traditional television news has missed the boat. The mere fact that Medill professors are telling us specifically not to use a "Daily Show cut away" shows the type of impact this phenomenon has exercized on traditional news. It's too bad that television still isn't addressing the root of the problem--as AJS metioned, The Daily Show is unfortunately one of the only outlets with enough longterm memory and thoughtfulness to remember, and illustrate, when a politician directly contradicts himself. The show itself may be getting a bit stale, but I think it still will be quite sometime before the effects start to wear off.


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