Are you all having a good day? I hope so, because I'm not, and I like to fantasize that the universe has some sort of built-in balancing mechanism.

In the interests of making myself think about something less unpleasant, I am now going to intensely, bordering on fractally, over-analyze a joke.

It is always interesting to investigate what people think is appropriate to joke about, and what kind of snark is acceptable. I am of the mind that anything can be sporked from the proper angle and in the proper context, including the meta-analysis of when and where this is appropriate, which is probably why I tend to like comedians like George Carlin and Lewis Black and Frankie Boyle. All of them make a distinction between an abrasive stage persona who can get away with mocking just about anything, with creative profanity, and the person they are off-stage, who is generally horrified whenever they have to explain to other grown-ups the difference between comedy and real life.

There is a limit; characters like "The Diceman" get too repetitious for me to enjoy, although Andrew Clay per se is thoughtful and pretty funny as himself, if you can get him to interview like that. There are also comedians who specialize in characters whom I recognize to generally be hilarious, but hit some personal buttons that prevent me from enjoying the performance. Steve Carell is a very sharp, very witty guy OOC, and his neurotic characters can be funny when paired with an Only Sane Man, but a lot of what he does boils down to a load of dysfunctional awkward people bouncing off each other in dysfunctional awkward ways that get progressively worse when no one shows up to stop them. I understand why a lot of people find that funny, but I've been there in real life, and mostly it makes me want to run away.

I spend a lot of time on the internet, which means I spend a lot of time watching people get brutally offended over things that, from my point of view, are kind of stupid.
It seems to be a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation much of the time. If you avoid mentioning a hot-button issue, you're accused of sweeping things under the rug, and if you do mention it, someone will lambaste you for doing it incorrectly or insensitively. In light of that, I find it interesting that something as intentionally insensitive as The Daily Show has such a rabid following. The "list of acceptable targets" in that office seems to be isomorphic with the "list of things you can see by turning on the TV and flipping to a random channel". This includes themselves. They make fun of John Oliver for being British, they make fun of Samantha Bee for being Canadian, they made fun of Rob Riggle for being a ginormous Marine, and they make fun of Kristen Schaal for being twee. Jon Stewart gets picked on for being short, loud, unathletic, Jewish, and, now that he's gone completely gray and one of the regular correspondents is half his age, old.

The Daily Show gets away with a colossal amount of Everyone Is Bi. Like everything else on the show, it's played for audacity and lulz. Since most of the correspondents are cis-dudes who are openly married to lady-people, I'd normally expect this to trigger a flood of complaints about pandering, othering, queerbaiting, etc. So far as I can tell, it hasn't.

This may be in part because TDS has always been an open supporter of the LGBT* community, although that doesn't always confer immunity to other entities. I knew they've been wicked loud about it (particularly Stewart and Colbert) lately, outright celebrating at the recent Supreme Court marriage decision, but I didn't realize until I got to see the early part of the run that I'd failed to watch in college, that they've always been this blatant. It was a lot more remarkable back in 1999. It's not that no one was standing up for LGBT* rights then, or even that no one outside the community was standing up with them, but at that point, if you were standing up, and you weren't queer, you were expected to justify yourself. Constantly. 'How did you end up supporting this cause?' was a standard interview question, and you, the media figure under scrutiny, were expected to come up with a tale about a queer sibling or child or friend, or at the very least, a recent horrifying news story that had clued you into the fact that gay people were also human beings.

If anyone has ever got one of those answers out of Stewart, I haven't found it. His reasoning seems to be simply that denying other humans basic civil rights makes you a raging douchenozzle, and if you try it in front of him, he's going to raise an objection. I've never seen him go into Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today? -- he's spent the past fifteen years also not wearing a wedding ring, conspicuously enough that a few guests have brought it up, despite having gotten hitched shortly after he started on the show -- although amusingly enough I have seen him half-seriously launch into I Am Not A Piece Of Meat when informed that someone considers him attractive. Watching some of the interviews with the benefit of hindsight suggests that he already knew about public figures like Melissa Etheridge and Anderson Cooper before they came out/were outed, which in turn suggests that Stewart has always been the kind of guy you tell that sort of thing to without thinking much about it. He states his position in precisely so many words in a surprisingly civil conversation with Mike Huckabee just after the 2012 elections.

The larger part of it may be the tone of the jokes, in which it is made plain that none of the people involved think anything much of it. The gag actually rests on the fact that they don't, but they expect some segment of the audience will, or at least that their extremely liberal audience will recognize that a subset of outside conservatives would. The only openly gay correspondent I'm aware of was Frank deCaro; his segment "Out At The Movies" probably rested too heavily on camp stereotypes to fly today, but it's notable for the toss back to the main show, which featured increasingly elaborate and usually suggestive pet names for Jon Stewart at the end. Stewart never once reacted with anything other than a kind of fond amusement.

The longest-running of these gags also spilled over into The Colbert Report, and was basically that "Colbert" had not so much kept himself closeted as inadvertently barricaded himself in the Great Glass Elevator. The primary pingback there is to a depressingly large number of pundits and politicians on the Religious Right who have spewed homophobic vitriol for their entire careers, only to cap it off by being caught in a compromising position with another dude. Colbert puts a surprisingly nice spin on this; "Colbert" isn't self-loathing over it because he's so completely lacking in self-awareness that he hasn't even noticed the sheer gayness of it all.

The joke started, I think, because "Colbert" was shaping up to be more and more a parody of neo-con pundits over time, and because openly hitting on one of your co-workers, on camera, at the anchor desk, is one of the few unprofessional things they could think of to do on the show that real-life news people hadn't already gotten around to. The general theme is that the correspondents are all loons of one stripe or another, and the head anchor gets to sit there and blink and think 'I'm surrounded by idiots'. The point seems to have been less 'ha ha, dude's gay' than 'ha ha, dude's unbelievably oblivious'. The gag would have worked equally well if it had been given to a strawman (strawperson?) liberal moonbat lesbian who made passes at the men, or a correspondent who rambled constantly about his preternatural intuition and investigative skills while failing to recognize obvious signs that his spouse was banging just about everyone else at the newsdesk plus maybe defrauding several large financial institutions and illegally removing those tags from mattresses.

[Why it was centered on Stewart is much easier to guess: The two of them won't let go of each other. Mostly that seems to be Colbert. Stewart is like that a little; he uses a hand on the wrist or forearm to get a guest's attention during interviews, and he doesn't seem terribly twitchy when other people do it to him, although he also has the kind of pointy-ish personality that prevents people from trying it until they're already sure the interaction is going well. Colbert, though, uses contact as his go-to shorthand for connecting with or comforting someone even when he's in character, and if you're already one of his good friends your personal space is liable to get cut in half. They trigger it in each other to such an extent that they think nothing of leaning all the way over the table to clasp hands if there is no easier way to reach. I would love to find out how many weeks the two of them worked together before their co-workers started hunting down one of them to ask where the other one was. Particularly after Carell left, Colbert could not have convincingly run the gag with anyone else on that set.]

Traditionally, the target's reaction to this is something like YARGH YOU'RE INSANE GO AWAY. Stewart and Colbert cheerfully subvert this. It is never once played for squick. The first couple volleys from "Colbert" get a moment of perplexity from Stewart before he throws to commercial/the next segment, looking directly into camera with an expression that says 'okay, so that happened'. After that, they give up and it's just 'hell, why not'. It's a reminder that the whole point of The Daily Show is to do things that would be blindingly inappropriate in a real newsroom without having to go totally off the rails and into offensive territory. And probably not incidentally, it means they can give up on dignity and treat each other with undisguised affection on the air without breaking character. They are huge hams about it, when they think it will be entertaining, but it does seem to have a very real basis. Given how much they already can't look at each other during sketches without cracking up, not doing that might well be beyond the two of them.

Stewart for his part seems to give negative fucks about who he flirts with, as long as they cooperate and are funny. Denis Leary has known him forever and plays off-color banter ping pong every time he shows up, and Stewart's game of one-upmanship with legitimate news anchor Brian Williams really must be seen to be believed.

Comments

  1. The rapport Colbert developed with Dan Savage as a repeat guest on the Report is pretty delightful as well. Savage makes a good "straight man", so to speak.

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