Jon Stewart and The Daily Show spend a lot of time being incredulous over what happens in American politics. Much of what the show covers is definitely important, but sometimes the outrage and astonishment get in the way of the show’s stated goal: comedy. Last night on the show, Stewart covered a story about the air strikes on ISIS, including the news that its leader, Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi, might have been killed in a recent strike. Or maybe not. But the confusion over al-Baghdadi was not nearly as great as the confusion over whether or not President Obama is sending troops into Iraq. They could be considered boots on the ground or they could be the “3,000 Stooges.” Stewart is not sure which means that his audience probably is not sure as well, but instead of giving the viewers a good analysis laced with well-placed jokes, the show’s host managed to huff and puff and seem a little asthmatic over the whole thing. The fact that The Daily Show sometimes sputters over issues like ISIS reveals a flaw in the way it is produced, namely that comedy sometimes takes a backseat to ethical outrage.
Well-placed ethical outrage is the order of the day when it comes to Stewart’s expert comedic timing. He often combines the perfect mix of incredulousness with a spot-on joke that puts the entire situation in perspective. Last night’s segment on ISIS was not one of those times. In part, the stupidity of the unconfirmed reports of al-Baghdadi’s death could do the work for him. First, the terrorist leader was dead, then he was wounded, then the story came from Twitter, then an ISIS spokesman came out and said that the Twitter account that broke al-Baghdadi’s death to the world was actually run by Jordan’s intelligence operatives. So basically, as Stewart summarized, Jordan “catfished” ISIS and then all the trouble began. For those who have never heard the term catfish before, Urban Dictionary tells everyone that, “A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not… particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” Who knew that Jordan had a crush on ISIS? All this adds up to make al-Baghdadi “Schroedinger’s Terrorist” – both dead and not dead.
It would be funny, except Stewart does not manage to make good jokes about it. Other than Schroedinger’s Terrorist, the first part of the segment is lacking in comedic analysis. This could be a story about how the media jumps on anything even if it comes from an unreliable Twitter source. Or it could be yet another story about how air strikes do not do enough to combat ISIS or at least they are proving to be ineffective at stopping them. There are plenty of jokes in those angles as well as important points to be made. The problem is that Stewart does not go deep enough into the issues to be funny or to make his obvious frustration relevant. Instead, like the rest of America, he is just another citizen who thinks the government is being stupid.
The segment goes on, however, packing even more information into a tight segment and offering few opportunities for a good belly-laugh. People wanting to join ISIS are taking cruise ships in order to avoid airport security. Funny, yes, but Stewart does not make much of it. Instead, he uses it as a stepping stone to President Obama’s promise not to send in combat troops to the Middle East. Now there are 3,000 “advisors” being sent to help those allies who are fighting on the ground. “I feel like after the first 2,000 give their input,” Stewart said, “it’s mostly going to be like, ‘I just want to reiterate what Tony said.'” Various government and Pentagon officials go on to try to explain how sending 3,000 troops to Iraq does not constitute boots on the ground. Stewart quite rightly calls “bulls**t” on the whole thing.
But where is the funny? The Daily Show is a comedic news program and it barely managed to sputter out a joke over the whole ISIS story. Its humor is what puts all the bad and ridiculous news into perspective. Unlike normal news programs that either just report facts or analyse what is already happening, a comedy show based around the news can make points that the straight-laced, academic pundits simply cannot. Jon Stewart is usually pretty good at this and allowance has to be made for what is probably just a bad night at work. But the fact that this segment put righteous indignation ahead of pure comedy is a problem. It makes the show far less able to make a striking point about the absurdity of the political world.
Later in the show, however, Jordan Klepper redeems the show with his coverage of sensitivity training for police officers. Some officers are undergoing training in order to prevent them from shooting indiscriminately. The fact that they are only being trained not to shoot dogs had Klepper confused, until he realized just how cute dogs are. That explains why the public are far more outraged when cops shoot a dog than when they shoot a human being. This led the correspondent to create a brilliantly funny solution to the problem of police shootings. He had people dress up in dog costumes and put puppies in baby carriers strapped to their chests. That way, someone might actually be outraged if a cop shoots someone from a vulnerable minority, like African Americans for instance.
Klepper does what Stewart failed to do – use comedy to make a good point. The Daily Show’s brilliant rests in the fact that comedy is its number one weapon against all the stupidity of politics and the news. Sadly, last night The Daily Show failed to live up to that mission and it sputtered over ISIS and the president’s quite obvious hypocrisy about boots on the ground. There were a few shining moments, but audiences have come to expect more from Stewart and his team. Luckily, they have the rest of the week to redeem themselves before someone decides that the show’s overall quality is slipping. And as “America’s most trusted fake news team,” the show cannot let that happen lest the nation lose one of its few voices of reason in an unreasonable news cycle.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury