Com­edy in the age of po­lar­i­sa­tion

The Phnom Penh Post - - ENTERTAINMENT - Dave Itzkoff

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.

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