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Registered: 25 Jan 08
Editorial: Jon Stewart's Dilemma
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, April 20, 2008
It's hard to figure out who's more wickedly funny: Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. Both late-night TV smarties can split your sides, whether it's mock conservative Colbert, with his smack-down of liberals, or genuinely liberal Stewart, with his smiling skewering of conservatives.
Their Comedy Central shows remain so hot they're regular stops for politicians trying to sell themselves to voters. Just last week, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama risked Mr. Colbert's lampooning in order to make their pitches before the Pennsylvania primary.
Both hosts have perfected what The New York Times calls a "wry, anti-political style." But while we laugh along with other Americans at these two, as well as the cracks of David Letterman and Jay Leno, we note that it's not enough to simply puncture the pretenses of politicians.
Politics is hard work. And it's also hard to walk the fine line between satire - even harsh satire - that serves the greater good and satire that inspires easy cynicism.
Satire done well uses the comic's tools to drive a larger point, usually about how absurd the bill of goods someone, including Washington someones, is selling us. Satire gone overboard leaves you feeling as if everyone's selling you a bill of goods - so what's the point of voting, campaigning and contributing?
After years of honing his style, Mr. Stewart does the best job of finding the satirists' sweet spot. He often uses his piercing wit to offer illumination about the latest campaign flap, Iraqi situation or Washington bigwig. He even once lambasted CNN's Crossfire hosts for trivializing politics.
His evening competitors don't always combine wit with illumination. Too many nights, the Letterman/Leno writers go for the pointless putdown over the clever insight. Even Mr. Colbert, who regularly hosts members of Congress, seems more willing to go for the gag.
As we said, we laugh, too, even at the cheap shots. But when you get a laugh and an insight, that's when you get what Jon Stewart would call one of his Zen moments. That's why we'll keep tuning in.
In this heated political year, it's worth wading through the cynicism to find the satire that serves the larger good.