Can't Funny and Serious Get Along?

Steve Almond's take-down of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart in The Baffler further proves that serious people seem to like when funny people are serious, but funny people aren't much in the market for serious people to join their ranks. And serious people hate that.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Steve Almond's take-down of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart in The Baffler further proves that serious people seem to like when funny people are serious, but funny people aren't much in the market for serious people to join their ranks. And serious people hate that.

The Baffler, a recently relaunched left-wing magazine of cultural, economic, and political criticism (which is not too high on our company), gives Almond a chance to argue that Colbert and Stewart are "parasites of the dysfunction they mock," whose attempts at comedy only act as a "cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage." His most representative example is the assertion that Stewart's series on the Iraq war, "Mess O'Potamia," actually quelled anti-war protests. "Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case?" Almond's criticisms typically point to moments when the hosts are too focused on entertaining a broad audience with humor and not treating their targets seriously. On Stewart's selection of interview subjects, he writes, "He's not interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism." When you put it that way, no, he's not.

But that is not to say this scion of seriousness sees nothing of value in Stewart and Colbert's nightly broadcasts. The few cases where he praises the hosts are usually moments when they set aside the jokes. He gives special mention to Stewart's campaign for a 9/11 first responders bill, an instance when the funnyman did more outraged editorializing than satirizing. And he offers them George Carlin as closer to the version of comedy he wants, though the Carlin quote he selects is, again, a case where a funny person takes a turn for the serious:

"There's a reason education sucks, and it's the same reason that it will never, ever, ever, be fixed," Carlin once said, though not on The Daily Show. "The owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't."

You can agree or disagree with Carlin. But no matter what, it's not funny.

Why is this that serious people love when professionally funny people talk seriously? There are no doubt many people who have made Carlin's point more forcefully and eloquently. There's a certain animal-thinks-it's-people amazement to the praise.

But we think there's something else at work: being funny is hard. Like, really hard. Maybe even harder than being serious. And hardest of all is getting people to pay attention to serious things by turning them into something funny. Which, of course, is the typical praise serious people give to The Daily Show. Almond finds plenty of examples, such as The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, arguably the most influential serious book critic in America, who wrote in 2008: "Mr. Stewart's interviews with serious authors like Thomas Ricks, George Packer, Seymour Hersh, Michael Beschloss and Reza Aslan have helped them and their books win a far wider audience than they otherwise might have had."

Stewart and Colbert are the sugar that makes the medicine go down. But stop right there: if you're a serious person — or make your living as a serious person, or at least are a person who would like people to pay attention to serious things — that praise is a serious threat. It's basically admitting defeat for anyone who wants people to pay attention to serious issues if they're not as funny (and, let's be fair, smart) as Jon Stewart. It's admitting that you're Nurse Ratched competing against Mister Softee for the public's affection.

This fear is not confined just to the very serious writers at The Baffler. We often see that the only way for funny to be taken seriously is to stop being funny. We live in a country where Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken is a U.S. Senator, as Politico notes in a profile Tuesday called "Senator Serious." Franken's calculated public persona, as described by Politico's Manu Raju, says a lot:

Since he arrived in the Senate three years ago, the former Saturday Night Live star has tried to project an ultra-serious public image of a studious and hard-working senator who shuns the media spotlight and whose past career as a comedian and satirist is just that — a thing of the past

Franken has decided that funny would get in the way of the serious reasons he bothered getting elected in the first place. It's not an attitude shared by his colleagues, who are only amateurs at funny. Sen. Harry Reid's attempt to incorporate a "clown question bro" joke into a press conference was met with paroxysms of grief from the internet, as was Colin Powell's rendition of "Call Me Maybe." (If there's a reverse to serious's fear of funny, it's that funny doesn't like serious encroaching on its turf either.)

There's also the "in praise of the serious" movement we get to see every now and then, usually in the form of high-minded media criticism. "I don't watch TV," or more recently, "I don't read blogs" or the most recently the "slow news" movement. Slow news, as advocated by Politics Daily's Walter Shapiro or (oddly) Arianna Huffington, is the idea that we'd all be better off if we pledged to only consume media that's more slowly digested (and more slowly produced by serious people at The Economist or elsewhere). This is Huffington., a glossy long-form magazine, not HuffPost, a very, very big blog.

Nevertheless, just as funny people don't seem interested in recruiting the serious, we're pretty sure funny people won't be interested in the serious people's attempts to recruit them. Stewart might have a guest on soon to "interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism," but only if he's got a good gag.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.