Daily Show Democrats and Larry-publicans

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Guest blogger Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi of the Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, was just released by Barricade Books. His website is www.rabbisimcha.com.

Democrats must be praying that “Cool Jewâ€? Jon Stewart doesn’t tempt Barak Obama in saying anything stupid tonight. Senator Obama will appear on the Daily Show via satellite, which will air just hours after the Democratic candidate appears on the major networks after having bought a half-hour time slot to pitch his candidacy.

shtick shift, by simcha weinsteinThis will be Obama’s fourth appearance on the Daily Show, but his first since last April.

On the other hand, if you want to hear what Republican candidate John McCain has to say, you can catch him tonight as he sits down with a less “Cool Jew� on Larry King Live.

The two interviewers could not be more emblematic of the two candidates themselves.

The current U.S. election has seen an unprecedented Shtick Shift whereby Jon Stewart and his cast of comedic connoisseurs have replaced the traditional news media as many voters’ main source of information about issues and candidates. As the Rabbi at New York’s prestigious art school, the Pratt Institute, I can assure you that, for better or worse, countless young people look to Jon Stewart’s program as their main, and sometimes only, source of news.

If the Daily Show comes across as written especially by and for hip, young, people with a penchant for irony and iconoclasm, that’s no accident. Jon Stewart acknowledged as much when he accepted his Emmy in 2005: “When I first said that I wanted us to put together a late-night comedy writing team that would only be 80 percent Ivy League-educated Jews, people thought I was crazy. They said you need 90, 95% . But we proved ‘em wrong.�

The program grapples with the inconsistencies and contradictions ignored by the mainstream media, and gives voice to our frustrations with traditional news. If you look past the Daily Show’s cynicism, you see a real attempt to introduce ideas into the nation’s political conversation.

Yet for all its cool-factor, Jon Stewart still belongs to that long tradition of Jewish political satirists that includes Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. There is something very Jewish about grappling with the discrepancies of power, which is exactly what satire is all about. Jews have a history of wrestling with higher authorities. Ever since Jacob wrestled with the angel, battling earthly and heavenly powers has been at the core of Jewish identity.

Back in the “old country,� Jewish humor critiqued the shortcomings and absurdities of Russian rulers, first the Czar and then the Soviet government. As perennial “outsiders,� Jews possessed a unique perspective that made them natural-born comedians.

It’s a vicious circle. As real news gets more and more shallow, the Daily Show mocks that shallowness and earns great ratings, so real news desperately responds with – still more slick, superficial “reportage.� And so on. It’s a little like cereal passing itself off as nutritional while it adds sugary goodness, which in turn drives some people towards sports nutrition bars packed with expensive calories. Sometimes we just need some oatmeal.

Posted on October 29, 2008

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