Friday, April 29, 2011

A Pleasant Return: The Daily Show Integrates

I have had to take some time off to handle other writing that has taken my full attention. I thought, though, that I would return by talking about something else to which I have recently returned: The Daily Show.

It has probably been about three years since I regularly watched Jon Stewart. I had long been a fan but suddenly I found myself tired of it. Mainly, it was the show's inability to see its own complicity. As Stewart called for more civility on all sides, I began to see him as simply wimping out. Sometimes the truth isn't in the middle. Sometimes, one side is lying, conniving, and wrong.

I think I was especially dismayed by the way the Daily Show skewered the GOP as the party of old white guys but seemed incapable of noticing their own weaknesses in this regard. These were the years of Rob Corddry, Jason Jones, Rob Riggle, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert (before he had his own show). Now, as much as I enjoyed these guys, one would have trouble denying the show was, as the kids say, a sausage-fest. You might hasten to add that Samantha Bee was a correspondent in those days, and a damned good one at that. I would agree. But it should be noted that her husband is Jason Jones. It might be that her acceptance into the boys' club was through her husband. (Or, if my suspicions are wrong, he got the job through her). Nevertheless, these were certainly the days of a certain white nepotism. Before the show hired another female correspondent--or anyone who wasn't white--they hired Nate Corddry, Rob's younger brother. Surely, of all the funny people in New York, you cannot tell me that the only comedian you could find was the younger brother of some dude you already had on staff?

All white casts--and all-male casts--don't bother me in and of themselves. I'm all about making a good product. So, I never had a problem with lily-white Seinfeld, any more than I do with the great bulk of August Wilson's all-black plays. The legacy of our segregated worlds is that many scenes ain't rainbow-colored. My problem is with bad art. And when The Daily Show made fun of the Republican Conventions--and of the mainstream media's feigned inability to understand Sharpton's 2004 Democratic Convention speech--well, the irony just got a little too thick for me. Or perhaps the urge was too strong then, when I was still living in New York, to throw a giant portrait of Angela Davis, fist-raised, through their studio windows. I stopped watching. I finished my dissertation.

Happily, I can now turn to The Daily Show and see an array of entertaining comedians of both sexes and many races. Now, that alone does not endear me to a show (see Glee). The first and most crucial thing is that these people are funny and the show uses them well. When Larry Wilmore first appeared a few years ago as the "senior black correspondent," the skits tended to fail. Badly. He played a pretty straightforward role of educator, informing Jon of what black people think about x, y, or z. Humor has to have surprises, and nothing surprised me. Perhaps he ran out of material during his strong stint writing for the Bernie Mac Show.

The new Wyatt Cenac also plays "black correspondent" at times, but the range he traverses is far wider. (Whether this emerges from his writing or the writing staff's conception of him, I'm not sure). He recently appeared as a person from the future as predicted by fallacious early election polls, wearing a weird combover hairstyle he called the Giuliani. Here, he wasn't limited to being black and speaking about black things. He did it, but that was one among many bases he covered.

Same with his fake-news reportage on the brouhaha regarding an attempt to surround an area on Long Island with string to allow Jewish people to conduct prohibited 'work' activities on the Sabbath. When he does adopt the role of 'black correspondent,' he is likely to say outrageous and absurd things rather than supply real information about what black people think. It's great, because he shows how preposterous it is to have any single black person attempt to represent such a broad opinion. This is a major step forward for The Daily Show--and for television in general.

Similarly, the recent "special report" by Olivia Munn on the Tiger Mom phenomenon combined reference to the realities of being a second-generation immigrant with hilarious family dynamics. Rather than simply play on clichés about Asians, she played them and made nonsense out of them as well. Munn and Cenac are not trying to avoid race and they're not limited to it. It's one of many aspects of their comedic personalities; one of many wells that they draw from.

If this is the direction of our entertainment industries, I will be happy. It would be foolish and unrealistic to detach performer's from their identities. (Certainly, Jon Stewart is never asked not to be male, Jewish, married with kids). However, it would be equally foolish to think that those identities are narrow, unchanging, and predictable. Humor has to be based in truth, but truth is simply its springboard. I'm happy to be able to return to a Daily Show that has recognized the truth of its own position, opened the doors, and stayed funny.

Now, some things to think about:
Why, in recent television and film, have male comedy teams been the norm? The Apatow movies; The Office; Seinfeld/Larry David; Dave Chapelle and his co-writer Neal Brennan. It is interesting that cross-racial male comedy seems to work but we have fewer male-female teams on the old Lucy and Desi model--or even Hepburn/Tracy.

I have begun to think the dominance of men in comedy is because so much humor derives from humiliation. And you have to have status in order for the loss of it to be funny. Men are supposed to have status. Therefore, when they lose it, there can be humor. I suppose its a bit like the Freudian understanding of castration: since men have the phallic power, they have something to lose. Since women have already lost it, they really can't do much but play the "straight man," as it were, or the shrew (See Pam and Angela on The Office, US version). A few women have gotten out of this conundrum, but not many. And certainly very few women of color.

By the way, I'd also like to register my rebuttal of the ridiculous notion that "TV is sexist toward men now!" Sure, most fathers on family sitcoms are doofuses; wives are smarter and better at running the house. This has been true at least since Cliff and Claire Huxtable. However, if we go by the understanding that humor often results from a loss of status, one could say that every joke about the husband's loss of face simply reaffirms that he has face to lose--stature that (even though it is not earned by displays of competence) is always there, replenished at the start of each episode like a renewable resource. And if that ain't phallic power, I don't know what is.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Glad your back. A number of the 'comedy' podcasts out there (esp. Marc Maron and to a lesser extent The Nerdist) have discussed at various points the issue of gender and comedy. The Maron podcast with Kathleen Madigan was pretty much all about gender and stand-up comedy. There does seem to be a lot of buzz about the Bridesmaid as the female response to a lot of the guy comedy out there.

  3. I would just like to add to your comment that I'm particularly irked by gay always meaning male on this show. Women become invisible in this sense because the humor is found in the challenges to masculinity that male homosexuality poses. Also, did you see the bin Laden bit where Florida became a penis and America's "balls" descended? I have no words for that one.

  4. First, thank you for reading and commenting. Second, and third -- I agree with both your comments. (I do think Samantha Bee does some lesbian humor, though -- to give her credit). But, yes, with the exception of Sam Bee, it's all about the male homosexual threat and (to be fair) scoring points for being less afraid of it than conservatives. It's kind of smug, I think -- to play it both ways like that.

  5. Well, I was there with you about the ho-hum quality of the days when it was all Rod Cordry et al. It was funny a lot of the time, and I'm glad to see those guys move on to their own things (especially Colbert, because I pretty much always like his show better than TDS, except for the occasional yellowface bit he does). I feel like it could have been a sitcom about guys making a comedy show in those days.
    But I heart Wyatt Cenac and I also feel like Olivia Munn might finally get her due. I liked her on the video game and gadget network, G4TV, but she was definitely playing to a boys' club there. I love her irrational, hysterical schtick, because it plays to the whole "women are hysterical" stereotype in comedy but with such an aggressive edge that it's absurd. Hilarity ensues.