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Posted by on Sep 15, 2008 in Arts & Entertainment | 0 comments

Indecision 2008 convention coverage: analysis & comment

In just about a half an hour, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report return from a week long hiatus after their hilarious Indecision 2008 convention coverage. While they were on break, I took the opportunity to speak about that coverage with Dr. Robert J. Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University:

How do you think they did with the convention coverage?

I have to say it again and I’ve said it a hundred times before that these shows are becoming an important part of our civic conversation. I TiVoed all these different approaches to these conventions and they’d have the speeches and then these long round table discussions afterwards and then I would watch what The Daily Show was doing and not only has it been really, really funny – I think some of the best American humor that’s being churned out in any medium right now – but at the same time it is spot on analysis. It’s rude sometimes as comedy is and not necessarily fair and balanced but the way they get these clips together and show us the primary sources, it may not be journalism but it certainly is good analysis.

Do you think Jon Stewart has any bias toward one side or the other?

Well I think the first bias of any comedian is the bias against anyone in authority because they’re the most fun to skewer. And, certainly, the comics loved going after Bill Clinton. He was every comedian’s dream come true. I’ve always said when comics die and goes to heaven Bill Clinton will still be president up there.  And certainly one gets the sense listening to Jon Stewart over time that there’s certainly no love lost between him and the Bush administration. One gets the sense that people coming from the Right have done much better on talk shows on radio and people coming from Left of center have done better in the comedy realm. He’s surely got political opinions though if Obama wins I imagine that The Daily Show is going to have great fun making fun of him as well..

The problem with Barack Obama has been that he gives you so little to work with. He’s the reverse of Bill Clinton. He’s every comic’s worse nightmare. At least Jimmy Carter had a peanut farm. We could do something with that. Gerald Ford fell down a lot. But Barack Obama… some comics may have a bias against him because he’s harder to make fun of. But no president is in office very long before the comics find something to latch on to.

Do you think Jon Stewart is reaching a demographic that the pollsters are missing?

I don’t know that they’re under-represented in the polls but those same people are under-represented in voter turnout. I’d love to see research on the voting rates of Jon Stewart’s audience versus voting rates of Fox News channel audience versus voting rates of CBS Evening News audience. That would really be very useful data to have because if, in fact, a lot of this stuff is just voices crying in the wilderness then it may end up meaning a lot less than its cultural buzz suggests. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are certainly considered to be forces to be reckoned with by the political community as well as the entertainment community.

I haven’t seen their ratings lately.  And Colbert and Stewarts ratings are really hard to grasp anyway because we can get the ratings of how many people watch it every night which is big for cable but modest compared to the big monster sorts of audiences. But so many people are getting it via Internet both on Comedy Central where people can watch legitimately but people also post this stuff all over the place.  I wouldn’t be surprised that a very substantial portion of the people seeing Jon Stewart are not seeing it on a TV but are seeing it on a computer screen.

Which takes us to Colbert, who’s got another Green Screen Challenge up because McCain accepted the nomination in front of a green screen. I am not aware of any other show that is as effectively bridging the Internet audience back and forth between TV and the net.

Yes. They’re actually giving you a reason to cross that bridge. I remember when the Internet was just getting noticed by TV and you could go on and get a couple extra clues for who did the murder on Homicide or The Drew Carey show did an interactive show that required you to go on the Internet but they were gimmicks. Here we’ve got a show, Colbert, that has an audience that’s not only on the Internet most of their waking hours but, given a reason, is willing to go back and forth and make more fluid that border between the traditional television show experience and how you consume it on the Internet. And short of putting up web addresses you see virtually none of this on primetime.

What do you think we can expect going forward from Colbert and Stewart?

I think Colbert and Jon Stewart are both doing really, really, funny, solid, relevant, important work now doing these elections. But if you think back he did that first during Indecision 2000 and my guess is that these shows will continue to provide this other perspective. Right now there’s a sense that there’s way more that you want them to do then a half hour, four nights a week – and they did go to five nights during the conventions. This election season has been so much that 24 hours between The Daily Show and Colbert shows seemed like way too long. Like the old days when you had to wait for the morning paper to arrive. I think they could do breaking comedy segments, you know, like they do when they have breaking news. Colbert and Jon Stewart have so much to do comedy on that you actually have to break in throughout the day to deliver this kind of stuff. And, of course, with the Internet component that would be easy to do. I think the real issue now is it’s hard enough to churn out four shows a week, how could they be doing this, too, but I think there’s an audience for it. I had a real feeling during those conventions that I could really use some “breaking comedy” the way I need breaking news.

I keep hoping the legitimate news would take a cue for them – not for breaking comedy, not for comedy – but the way they go to the archives, get all the clips, but them together and show the contradictions, hypocrisies, all this kind of stuff. Any decent news show ought to be able to do that. You know, that the kind of stuff that shouldn’t only be on Comedy Central. It ought to be going on CNN, CBS and all the rest of them. Whenever a claim is made in one of these speeches they should go back and reconstruct the video record. There’s such an enormous one that frankly that’s something I think every news operation ought to be doing. I think for a while they were scared to death because they didn’t want to be painted by the same brush as Bill Maher and The Dixie Chicks and so they backed off during those crucial months before the war when they should have been really hammering a lot of those questions home. It is a sense of paranoia and now that MSNBC has had its little disaster with Olberman and Matthews, which was done in a very ham handed way. I think what these journalists have to do is say that this is a profession, unique to any other profession, and we’re not necessarily supposed to be liked and adored and do the job as well as they can possibly do it and sometimes that means really going after someone. Did anyone ever blame Woodward and Bernstein for “going after the president”? Of course they were going after the president. That’s what that story was.

Now you do have to go after them in a way that’s correct. That’s the great advantage that Colbert and Jon Stewart have. They can play fast and easy with this kind of stuff.  News operations would have to make sure they played those clips with enough contest, with a full introduction, but they could do it. You know, these big shot news operators get paid a lot of money. This is a job that they could be capable of doing.

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