Saturday, May 8, 2010

This Joke Isn't Funny Anymore!

Congresswoman: Well, Mr. Dallas... we've heard your smut masquerading as songs... and we've heard how teen prostitution pregnancy, drug use, cults, runaways, suicide and poor hygiene are sweeping this nation. We thought you might like to share with the committee any particular causes you might see for those latter problems...

Steve Dallas: I dunno. Maybe the proliferation of narrow, suffocating zealotry masquerading as parenting in this country.

-From Bloom County

My initial seduction into the world of politics came through Bloom County. Created by Berkeley Breathed, the daily comic strip lambasted the Reagan and Bush era from 1980 to 1989. Unlike Garry Trudeau’s dry, New Yorker-esque Doonesbury, Bloom County was blatantly immature and juvenile, referencing conservative figures like Edwin Meese and Casper Weinberger during plotlines involving Opus the penguin and Bill the Cat. Breathed mocked the conservative eighties in a way that made one realize how moronic the government as a whole really was.

The first storyline I remember was one of Bloom County’s most popular, the “Billy and the Boingers” saga in which part-time lawyer, full-time womanizing cad Steve Dallas decided the easiest path to fame and fortune was by managing a hair band featuring Opus, Bill and Hodgepodge the rabbit. Satirizing both the heavy metal genre and the PMRC hearings which dogged it, Breathed’s over the top style made comedic mincemeat out of all subjects involved. During the course of the 1980’s, the Bloom County universe would see Bill the Cat run for president twice, spy for the Russians, start a fundamentalist sect (Fundamentally Oral Bill) and have Donald Trump’s brain implanted in his head. Throughout these shenanigans, Breathed never lost sight of Bill’s initial premise: a blatant Garfield rip-off devoid of any personality or likeability, except that of a chain-smoking drug addict. Naturally, Bill the Cat became one of the strip’s most popular characters, even being sold as a stuffed toy with warnings it would fall apart if the buyer even touched it.

I followed Bloom County avidly until its end in August 1989. Much like his contemporary, Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Waterson, Berkeley Breathed chose to end his strip before it fell into self-parody. Without Bloom County, I never would have become interested in politics, especially the buffoonery and corruptness contained therein. Throughout the 1990’s, it seemed that type of biting political humor was missing in America, despite several brilliant Saturday Night Live sketches. The day to day savaging of capital hill was missing until 1996, when Lizz Winstead’s “The Daily Show” premiered on Comedy Central. Initially hosted by Craig Kilborn and ultimately taken to national prominence by Jon Stewart, The Daily Show lampooned national politics and the cable media’s coverage of whatever they believed was news.

For those with a short memory, much of cable news consisted of nonstop coverage of trials and the continual exploits of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Michael Jackson. The Daily Show, along with select other pontificating pundits, would point out this fallacy of news. Celebrity news coverage began to dissipate with the debacle that was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, with Stewart continually savaging the George W. Bush’s administration’s inept response along with cable media’s inept reporting. Stewart was always quick to point out that there were two wars going on as well, something cable news has done their best to ignore. However, it wasn’t until 2008’s presidential election coverage that celebrity stupidity was put on the back on the shelf. Stewart and his Daily Show staff now focused completely on political coverage and there was much funny to be had that fall, particularly at the expense of the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

During this period, the Daily Show garnered more attention and viewers than it ever had. Cable news began to notice this and began to feature more sarcastic pundits as opposed to hard analysts. Many of these new contributors had questionable credentials besides being young and photogenic. It seemed anyone could be labeled as a Republican or Democratic analyst as long as they possessed a sarcastic mouth and a pretty face. Ironically, this shift resulted in more credibility for Stewart, Steven Colbert, Samantha Bee and the rest of their staff. After all, at least they were consistent. As 2008 ended, the Daily Show had a big cry as their biggest punching bag, the Bush Administration, would no longer be there to kick around. In half-hearted seriousness, they questioned their ability to be funny in the Barack Obama era.

As Obama assumed the Presidency in 2009, cable news realized they could keep, if not gain, viewership by continuous political coverage. The Daily Show (and to a lesser extent, The Colbert Report)’s staff took advantage of the news anchors and pundits who were obviously more comfortable covering celebrities. There was a reason CNN covered the death of Michael Jackson for two months: it gave them a bigger audience. 2009 and 2010 have seen Jon Stewart not only rip on politicians, but on many of cable media’s staff. Never was this more evident than Stewart’s savage destruction of CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who was forced to defend his “Mad Money” show after defending the solubility of Bear Stearns just days before it collapsed. After this interview, Stewart’s daily insults of politicians and news media became news itself, especially of internet sites The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. Despite Stewart’s mockery of this aggregated coverage (usually Stewart lays into this or savages that), something started to disappear from the comedy which has garnered so many Emmys.

Currently, The Daily Show spends much of its time still making fun of cable news anchors and their guests. With the exception of Fox News, most of these shows average one million viewers or less. One wonders what the point is in spending ten minutes insulting the likes of CNN’s John Roberts and Rick Sanchez or MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer. It seems Stewart and his staff wants another Jim Cramer: someone they can insult and then get to appear on the show. The problem is that these talking heads are just following talking points given to them from their producers. Cramer had his own show and his own brand that marketed itself as sound financial advice. Cable news anchors don’t market anything except a pretty face and a four-year degree. Why invest the time in insulting people who don’t claim to be experts at anything?

For a while, The Daily Show attempted to show an even hand in the Obama era. Nevertheless, as 2009 wore on, there were much easier targets such as Fox News and the Republican Party in general. As Fox News ramped up their opposition to the Obama administration, their ratings increased with the rhetoric. The more one-sided the network became, the higher the audience became. For the last six months or so, The Daily Show has gained most of its material from Fox News and the Republicans who appear on it (thank you Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann). As funny as Jon Stewart’s zingers may be, his continual assault on Fox is starting to resemble a broken record. If one were to judge popularity based on insults, Fox and Friends must be bigger than American Idol. Yet the Daily Show had yet to find another “Jim Cramer moment” until last week when Stewart went on a tirade against O’Reilly Factor pundit Bernard Goldberg, resulting in the now famous line: “Fox News – go f**k yourselves.” Much to the joy of The Daily Show staff, Goldberg chose to respond, which has resulted in several more attempts at the first profanic response. This also gave The Daily Show even more internet aggregation that they supposedly mock. But one wonders with such blatant insults laid on the table, where do you go from here?

The opening strip in the first Bloom County anthology, “Loose Tails”, ended with student Milo Bloom exclaiming “REAGAN SUCKS!” This was a joke within a joke, meaning political comedy should never be either so dry as to be only understood by those with a stuffy New England masters degree like Doonesbury nor be so mindless as to be understood by those who love profanity for profanity’s sake. In entering a profane discourse with Fox News, The Daily Show has shown they would rather appear constantly on the home page of the Huffington Post than engage in comedic politics. Constantly swearing at Fox News does not help the viewer in seeing the funny side, but rather how dirty everything that calls itself politics has become. Berkeley Breathed chose to end Bloom County before it became what he despised: a cultural institution. By choosing to become a profanity-laced counter to the right wing culture, The Daily Show is no longer an alternative to the mainstream news, but a willing participant. Like tennis players in an unending match, the ball will be hit back and forth until the monotony forces the audience to change the channel. For me, it is back to that never-ending joy of the internet. I’ve yet to get that stuffed Bill the Cat. When I do, I’ll have Bill under my arm by the couch and tune in to The Daily Show. As Jon Stewart engages one of his wide-mouthed laughs, I’ll point him to the screen and shout: OOP ACK!

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