The central reason for The Daily Show’s popularity is their Midas touch for teasing out hilarious failures of logic from politics and punditry. If you’ve seen the show, you know the shtick: some news clip of a red-faced blowhard going on and on, digging a rhetorical grave, and then bam!—cut to Jon Stewart with a sardonic deadpan as the audience bursts out laughing and/or groaning. It’s the bread and butter of the show. The bi-partisan idiocy truly does exasperate him, but the show would never subside on Stewart’s passion alone. Then he’d be just “another Hollywood liberal.” The show has become an icon because the writers and videographers are so adroit at capturing the non-existent principles of Washington.
Michael Chabon, ever the wielder of nuanced vocabulary, centered an op-ed in the run-up to the 2008 election on taking back our lives from the phobocracy, which essentially means a power structure based on phobia, or better, fear. (I don’t think it’s in the dictionary, but it absolutely should be.) Stewart exists because of the phobocracy. We pay attention to a scary sword and fist pounding, and that’s why we get both of them on the news. Take the asinine debate over the Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero. Sure, over other issues like gun rights Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin spend hours defending the Constitution. (So…how about that First Amendment?) Sure, the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by a handful of extremist psychos from the mountains of the Middle East. (Islam has 1.2 billion members around the world.) Sure, precedent makes the argument inherently xenophobic. (We have churches near bombed abortion clinics.) None of this matters. Logic is not important. The only thing that sells better than sex, is fear. I talked about shades of this in the Shark Attack Theory post, but as a public, we get bogged down by the perception of a problem, when if we take a breather and step back, we realize that figureheads are billowing a fire for their own good, not ours—as much as if feels like it. And so it’s a silly Circle of Life. Stewart doesn’t have his bread and butter because of Washington’s inconsistencies, he has it because blowhards and flimsy political stances are wrought from inert remotes and lockstep votes.
I sometimes flash to my favorite show ever when I think about this: Looney Tunes. A constant gag was when Bugs would blast Yosemite Sam with a long fire hose. He’d go sailing back, spout some country anger, regain his footing and go fighting to all tarnation against the rush of water, trying to get upstream to that gol’dern varmint—all while Bugs casually holds the nozzle and flashes a sardonic deadpan to the camera.
But when I’ve watched recently, I’ve wondered: Why is Yosemite Sam going for Bugs and the nozzle? Why not go for the spigot?
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at