Jon Stewart is no fan of Fox News. Earlier this year he looked into the camera during a comedy routine and spoke directly to Fox saying, “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Go f—– yourselves!” A week or so later he had a gospel choir on stage with him singing that same explicit phrase. Not long ago, the use of this sort of pubic profanity during a comedy sketch got Lenny Bruce thrown in jail. Not so with Jon Stewart. He was granted an audience with the President of the United States.
There was a time when Stewart’s fan base was limited to young students in college dorm rooms across the country. But his appeal is no longer exclusively to a twenty-something demographic. A recent report found that his appeal is quite high from those between 18 and 49, though it drops dramatically among those over 50. But what accounts for the different treatments received by the two comedians? Why was Lenny Bruce regularly harassed by the cops while Jon Stewart is allowed to engage in a lighthearted televised discussion with the President? I think the answer to that question says something important about our age.
In his book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, (Vintage, 2000), Neil Gabler argued that because of its addiction to entertainment, American culture has now become a place in which “serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything—are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than every before.” He suggested that “whether we’re dealing with the sphere of politics, religion, or education, everything has now become a ‘branch of show business where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.’”
In the 1960s Lenny Bruce shocked his audiences. But when the shock of the new began to fade, audiences began to crave this new “stimulating” form of entertainment, even outside of late night comedy clubs. The 70s and 80s saw the rise of morning shock jocks such as Howard Stern, and political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh became famous for incorporating irreverence and entertainment as they opined about the news. And the 90s witnessed the birth of cable programs like Politically Incorrect and The Daily Show, which basically continued this same “mock everything you disagree with” approach.
But something strange happened throughout this process. People began to prefer the entertaining show about the news, more than the news itself. According to a 2007 Pew Study, “When Americans were asked…to name the journalist they most admired, a comedian showed up at No. 4 on the list. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central and former master of ceremonies at Academy Award shows, tied in the rankings with anchormen Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and cable host Anderson Cooper.” More recently, a 2010 Time Magazine poll of approximately 10,000 people listed Jon Stewart as the most trusted source for News, ahead of Brian Williams, Charley Gibson and Katie Curic.
The big problem with this, in the words of Stewart himself, is that he and his staff are not journalists. “We don’t do anything but make the connections…We don’t fact-check [and] look at context because of any journalistic criteria that has to be met; we do that because jokes don’t work when they’re lies. We fact-check so when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a gut level — not because we have a journalistic integrity, [but because] hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don’t want to violate.”
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are currently the kings of faux news. But what happens when comedy dressed up in news garb becomes the news for most people? What happens when the simulacra becomes the new reality? The answer is that reality itself gets distorted, the king starts talking public policy with the court jester, and no one blinks.
In my thinking, this is all part of the trend that Neil Gabler outlined. Entertainment is the new reality. Issues of depth, substance and significance are constantly being marginalized. Lenny Bruce has become the most trusted name in news. This is not a liberal versus conservative problem. Glenn Beck’s “fusion of entertainment and enlightenment” is a part of this same trend, and there are more similarities between he and Stewart than Stewart cares to admit. And in case no one has noticed, this trend has also affected the life, conversation, and worship throughout the American church landscape.