Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Funny Guys, Serious Pundits

As election time grows near, vitriolic campaign ads, questionable accusations, and red-hot rhetoric begin to threaten our collective sanity. The president launches an attack on his opponent’s character, and his opponent fires back by twisting the incumbent’s words. The Senate Majority Leader makes a dubious allegation, someone in the accused’s political party fires back with name- calling. It is no wonder the nation gives Congress such pathetic favorability ratings. 

Here to save us from the bickering and the convoluted debates are Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Colbert employs outright satire by inhabiting the character of an out-of-touch conservative pundit, while Stewart is more straightforward in his ridicule. Colbert usually demonizes conservative targets with pure satire, while Stewart attempts to spread his barbs more equitably. Though their approaches may be different, both aim to illuminate the little crimes that media and political figures commit. What makes them unique, and is likely the reason for their extensive followings, is the comedy that is at the heart of the shows.

That might seem obvious, as both shows run on Comedy Central, but less obvious is the absolutely pivotal role that comedy plays in informing viewers. Stewart opined that what this country needs is a "twenty-four-hour news network that would focus on corruption and governance as opposed to the politics of it." But he neglected to mention the importance comedy would have in the success of this hypothetical television station. Viewers tune in by the millions to watch Colbert and Stewart tear our democratically elected officials apart, an inherently depressing activity. They do it because the comic nature of the shows is a saccharine coating that makes the cynical commentary go down easy. As Colbert put it, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” 

But you shouldn’t let Colbert’s clownish antics or Stewart’s juvenile jokes fool you. The two can both make real waves in the real world. Congress once called on Colbert to testify about farming conditions, and his satirical super PAC has been a talking point for critics nationwide against the Citizens United decision. When Stewart went on CNN's Crossfire to excoriate the hosts for their partisan hackery, his criticism proved so penetrating that it precipitated the canceling of the show. When both Colbert and Stewart co-hosted a rally in D.C., humorously entitled, “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” about 215,000 people attended.

From the gap between the comic nature of these shows and their real-world influence, an identity crisis emerges. Colbert defends his show and his viewers by pointing out that in order to understand the jokes the viewers must first have some previous knowledge of current events. Stewart used the opposite tack to defend his show against Tucker Carlson of Crossfire when Carlson complained that Stewart wasted journalistic opportunity by cozying up to his guests. Explained Stewart, “My show comes on after puppets making prank phone calls,” which released him from any journalistic responsibility. With these explanations as context, one can see how Colbert and Stewart occupy some sort of immunity zone from which they can criticize but not be criticized.

Had you predicted 25 years ago that the majority of people aged 18 to49 would cite a comedy show such as Stewart’s or Colbert’s as their go-to news source, you’d have been ridiculed. Conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly, still hold this negative view, with O’Reilly even claiming that Stewart viewers are “stoned slackers.”  Perhaps more curious than the shows’ successes is that there exist no conservative equivalents. Maybe the notorious age disparity between the two parties’ respective supporters explains the lack of a conservative comedic figure. Conservative critics cast the satire as taking serious matters lightly or even mocking them, effectively demeaning topics that demand respect, with the implication being that conservatives care too much about the fate of our nation to engage in silly comedy.

Most likely, there is no conservative satirical voice for the same reason conservative critics think satire is a degrading pursuit: they just don’t get Stewart and Colbert, and they just don’t understand satire.