Comedy in the age of polarisation
ACROSS their comedy careers, Jon Stewart and Robert Smigel have taken wildly different approaches to topical humour. Stewart, as the host of The Daily Show, honed a pointed, partisan perspective that rooted out hypocrisy in current events. Smigel has developed a gleefully unmannered voice that he’s used to send up politics and pop culture on shows like Saturday Night Live and as his trash-talking puppet creation, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
The friends recently spoke about their views of the political moment as they prepare for their annual comedy concert, “Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs”, to benefit Next for Autism, which creates and supports school programmes and services for people with autism. This year’s event will be Saturday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and broadcast live on HBO, with a lineup that includes Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Adam Sandler, Abbi Jacobson and Hasan Minhaj.
This interview occurred before the New York Times published a report on the sexual misconduct of Louis CK, who was scheduled to perform but was dropped by HBO.
The show comes at a challenging moment for comedy, which is having a hard time preserving an inclusive, big-tent spirit when performers feel compelled to express their personal politics in their work. Stewart and Smigel got together recently to talk about “Night of Too Many Stars” and how comedy has been af- fected by internet culture and polarisation. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
When did you two first meet? JON STEWART: Hebrew school.
ROBERT Smigel: Summer camp. We were in Godspell together. I think I met you at an SNL party.
JS: Those were always the parties that you’d walk outside and go, It’s light again.
RS: The first benefit my wife, Michelle, and I did for NBC was in 2003. Everybody who does the show, they’re happy to help and I’m very grateful. Jon was really curious, and when I told him why this exists, it was be- cause my son Daniel couldn’t get into any kind of school that could help him at that age.
JS: When you see people you admire, you have this idea that they can solve anything that comes their way. To hear about what he was dealing with and how much they had to move heaven and earth, just to get basic necessities, it was shocking.
Are you concerned that the political leanings of some performers – Jon, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver – might discourage some of the viewers you’re trying to reach?
RS: Hopefully people won’t take it out on people with autism.
JS: “I didn’t like that joke, so this school goes unfunded.”
RS: We’re going to try not to be too divisive.
Is it harder now to put together a comedy event intended for a wide audience? Is it possible to be a comedian without a political point of view?
JS: (old man voice) “It was a simpler time. A movie was a nickel. A sandwich, they paid you to eat.” Now everything is conflict. Everything exists now for clicks. You’re incentivised to pick not just the lowesthanging fruit, but the fruit that tastes the worst. Because what you want is a reaction, whether it be incredibly positive or incredibly negative. You can’t avoid that that is the world in which this is born.
Do you think you contributed to that environment? Do you feel responsible for . . .
JS: For the sad state of the world? I do, but not for that reason. I just assume I’m always doing something wrong. Some of it is that the news cycle is so relentless. Comedy shows that are promoting more day-and-date stuff have to keep up with that.
RS: Since Jon started, comedy has had to deal with the instant reaction it gets on the web. What frustrates me is seeing comedy succumbing to that. A lot of times, jokes now are judged on the target – on the point of view, rather than how funny they are.
Has the internet made people quicker to take offence at jokes?
JS: I don’t think they’re quicker to offence. I think it’s quicker that you know about it. The outrage has always been there – it just wasn’t on your feed.
RS: I did these Triumph specials last year, and by the time the election ended I was just like, “Enough.” I was so disgusted by both sides. I was supporting Hillary, but all she would talk about is that Trump is a misogynist. No policy stuff. Just that urge to be divisive and to call the other side names.
JS: Exactly. That’s our job, to call these people names! Their job is to take it!
Take an example like Larry David’s SNL monologue, where he joked about hitting on women at a concentration camp.
RS: It fit right in with Larry’s way of making light of a serious situation. He was the butt of the joke. It seemed like a joke that a lot of old Jews would laugh at.
JS: I did laugh at it. I am an old Jew.
RS: On the web, a lot of people were defending it. I thought, OK, this is good. People are saying, you can draw a line here, at what you can be outraged by.
For people who don’t share your politics – who wish we could go back to a more evenhanded era of Johnny Carson – do they have a point?
JS: Here’s what I would say: Tough s—. Honestly. The idea that you’ve lost the pleasure of watching Carson? I used to like watching Carson, too. But I think that’s a cop-out. The people that say, “This culture isn’t for me,” live in a nostalgic world. Those are the people that are the first to tell minorities, “Suck it up.” Those are the first people to say to individuals that are being relentlessly either ostracised or legally threatened, “Oh, snowflake, watch yourself.” But God forbid somebody doesn’t say “merry Christmas”. It’s the empty rhetoric of grievance, and I don’t feel bad in any way, whatsoever.
RS: Colbert is hilarious. Sarah (Silverman)’s trying really hard. She’s doing a show on Hulu where she’s really trying to engage with people. I want Colbert to keep doing what he’s doing, but I want to see more people make that effort, too. Because we need both.
Jon Stewart (left) and Robert Smigel, comedians and longtime friends, in New York on November 8.