On June 22, George Carlin passed away, marking the end of his 50-year reign as the king of stand-up comedy. Carlin’s material had run the gamut from portraying Al Sleet, Carlin’s suspiciously mellow “hippy-dippy weatherman,” to delivering some of the most incendiary religious and socio-political humor out there. Carlin was universally respected for his ability to decry hypocrisy and corruption in high places with facts, history, simple logic and a generous helping of vulgarity.
Who now will be the one to wear the crown of political satire?The answer is Jon Stewart, lead anchor and writer of Comedy Central’s much-beloved “fake” news program “The Daily Show.” In case you’ve been living in a hole, which Stewart called “the soundest real-estate investment possible” on Sept. 23, “The Daily Show” writers and cast pride themselves on skewering major political figures and their constituents with their own words.
Stewart is also a major fan of Carlin and hosted Carlin’s “40 Years of Comedy” TV retrospective in 1997, two years before “The Daily Show” debut. Carlin, recognizing a kindred spirit, said to Stewart, “you are going to show us a lot, and I look forward to it.” This was prophetic.
George Carlin was not simply the king of a generation of hard-hitting political comedy, but one of its founding fathers along with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. In fact, Carlin’s comedic career spanned several generations, 14 HBO specials, and, more to the point, several presidencies.
Carlin had always been outspoken, but it was his infamous “seven words you can never say on television,” a gleefully profane 1972 sketch that earned him perhaps his most notoriety. His subsequent arrest for obscenity and fines from the Federal Commerce Commission made Carlin a legendary folk hero among comedians.
The charges were dismissed, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC’s decision to fine Carlin for obscenity. Carlin used his experiences to fuel increasingly rebellious material.
“The FCC, an appointed body, not elected, answerable only to the President, decided on its own that radio and TV were the only two parts of American life not protected by the first amendment to the Constitution,” Carlin said in “What Am I Doing In New Jersey,” his 1988 HBO special.
This was his first highly political special, and politics became Carlin’s material of choice. Nobody, from “Ronald Reagan and his criminal gang” in 1988 to “good old Governor Bush” in 2001’s HBO special, “Complaints and Grievances,” escaped Carlin’s acid tongue.
Stewart’s respect for Carlin is evident in his material. Two weeks ago, Stewart targeted “Frankensteinian” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who asked for a $700 billion “bail-out” for aid in the U.S. economic crisis. It was Paulson’s demand that the money be “non-reviewable,” coupled with the fact that Paulson holds an appointed, non-elected position that raised Stewart’s ire. Sounds like the attitude of Carlin.
Just like Carlin, Stewart uses logic, history and facts to criticize political figures. Stewart’s area of “fake” news, as he calls it, limits and focuses Stewart’s material, and a daily show is an ideal forum to showcase his talents.
Stewart is protected by both his irreproachable position as a “fake” news anchor and by the medium of television itself. Stewart is famous, and perhaps feared, for his ability to use clips from archival footage of politicians to catch them contradicting themselves. Stewart’s methods are so effective that “The Daily Show” is often ranked with legitimate political talk shows.
With this in mind, the hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire” accused Stewart of liberal partisanship during the 2004 Presidential campaign. Stewart responded that it is strange that CNN and other “news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”
The fact that he uses his talents for comedic effect softens the blow, but as Stewart himself said of the first Daily Show after Sept. 11, 2001, sometimes putting a funny face on the truth is the only way we can prevent the horror and absurdity of it all from crushing us.
Possibly the monarchical metaphors have worn thin, but then again, they suit comedians well relative to politicians. Politicians rise and fall every four to eight years. Comedians rise and fall at the will of the populace, and though this process is democratic, the comedian at the top of the political dog pile is undeniably king.