That Old Darkness Again
When Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, I was a happy man. I’d been surrounded for so long by armchair, crypto-Yuppie liberals who worshiped the ground Stewart walked on. They’d freely admit that they got all their news from The Daily Show and would even be proud of that fact and try to recruit others to follow suit. Even while Stewart himself stressed, again and again, that it’s just a comedy show and it wasn’t intended to be the primary news source for millions of Americans.
These armchair liberals would go on and on about how brilliant Stewart was. Googly-eyed and sighing that “he’s so smart,” they’d say how outraged they were at the small nuggets of information that outraged Stewart. I’d ask them if these soundbyte stories inspired them to research the problems in greater detail and they’d stare blankly back at me. But…why? Stewart told them everything they needed to know in a 90 second segment.
I think it’s exactly that soundbyte culture that must have sickened Stewart, and inspired The Daily Show to mock the public. In the end, though, the show became a sort of patient zero for the wider proliferation of that soundbyte culture. Now John Oliver, Sam Bee, and others are all spinning off. We’ve come to expect a brief news digest delivered by a biased commentator who, if called out on their role, sidesteps and says, “But we’re just a comedy show.”
But now the “comedy show as the only news I need” syndrome has become confused by the seething anger of the presenters. That was a hallmark of Stewart’s final years – the comedy started to give way to true outrage. But it was kept in check. Stewart left at a good time, I think, or else he would have hit the same tipping point his protégés are now encountering. Sam Bee, in the face of outlandish evil playing out on her screens, has more than once simply stared at the camera come the end of a segment and said: “I don’t have a joke for this.”
John Oliver has to resort to vaudeville dance routines to get himself out of the angry groove.
I’ve started to feel it myself. I used to mock everything and everyone but, more and more, I’m finding myself the quiet one at the dinner party. Sorry, kids, I just don’t have a joke for this.
Maybe those armchair Yuppies were right. Maybe the only healthy way to approach life was to have a comedian tell you everything you needed to know in 22 minutes and then stop thinking about it when the credits rolled. The world may be burning, but wasn’t that man on the street interview about who the president of Croatia is funny? Yes, it was. And we’ll hold onto it, and cherish it, and talk about it at the water cooler, and just try…try, try, try…to breathe. Inhale, one-two-three, exhale. The world will be okay. The dogs will bark and the kids will play and the paychecks will keep coming.
In which case, Jon Stewart’s retirement was a major loss since, now, the 22-minute comedy routine is starting to fail us. The kids are horrified, the paychecks aren’t such a sure thing, the barking dogs may be sounding an alert: Robbers approaching. Soldiers approaching. Rebels approaching.
What happens when we all wake up from this nightmare that has consumed us since 9/11? What happens when, in They Live parlance, we start to see?
Long ago, when I started this blog, I cried out for a new social revolution. What I’m going to get, eventually, won’t be as Time/Life as the 60s. I see something visceral coming. It’s not as simple as this election, or Trump, or what Trump will do, or whatever the outrage du jour is. Honestly, I’ve felt something very bad coming for a long time. In 2003, Hunter Thompson said:
“…we have lost the respect of the world … Iraq is a permanent war zone … the national economy is crashing all around us … the Pentagon’s “war strategy” has failed miserably … our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security…has been looted and neglected and destroyed … The stock market will never come back, our armies will never again be #1, and our children will drink filthy water for the rest of their lives.”
We’ve since lost Thompson, but those words from a throw-away article at ESPN come from 13 years in our past. Yet we could utter them today and still be correct. We really have Rip Van Winkled our way through the last 15 years. We all trudged to work on September 12th, 2001 and sat by in a numb shock as the world around us was dismantled. Here we are today. Still numb. Still in shock.
Do you ask yourself why everything is getting remade and rebooted? If you’re nostalgic for it, then have I got a reboot for you! Whatever it is… Jesus Christ, they’re rebooting fucking M.A.S.K.. That’s all a symptom of our dream. The further we fall into the numb shock, the more we want to wrap ourselves in our childhood blankets.
But you can’t stay in shock forever. You can’t stay asleep forever. You’ll die. Yet you can’t survive suddenly waking up into a world gone mad, either. A world where there’s no choice but to stop, turn to the camera, and say, “I don’t have a joke for this.”
Thompson ended that article by predicting “Big Darkness, soon come.”
It came, alright. It’s right there in the corner of the bedroom. It’s waiting for you to wake up. And there’s no fooling it. It knows you’re waking up. You’re going to have to fight your way out of this bedroom or join the Darkness.