Friday, December 10, 2004

Two Times Funny

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, by the writers of The Daily Show and Jon Stewart, Warner Books, 2004

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents: America, the Book: The Audiobook, Warner Adult, 2004

Years ago, I picked up Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People on a whim. This was before his TV show and his elevation to icon status, and I thought it would be basically what most comedians’ output resembles, paragraphically arranged standup routines, a collection of bits you’ve heard a million times already. To my surprise, Stewart proved himself intelligent, hysterically funny, and unwilling to recycle his standup act for publication. The overwhelming impression I was left with reminded me of Woody Allen, but more profane, much more profane.

If I have one regret about not having cable, it is that I am unable to watch Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Prior to Stewart’s tenure, The Daily Show was a puff piece comedy sketch program showcasing ESPN’s Craig Kilborn making wisecracks about current news. In 1999, with the hiring of Stewart (Kilborn going on to CBS’s The Late Late Show), The Daily Show sharpened its focus, its tongues, and its knives.

The result has been an immense success for Stewart and what Comedy Central bills as “The Most Trusted Name in Fake News.” Capitalizing on this success, Stewart and his show’s writers have put together America: The Book, a faux textbook outlining Democracy Before America, Congress: Quagmire of Freedom, The Media: Democracy’s Valiant Vulgarians, and The Rest of the World: International House of Horrors.

Using textbook layout, each chapter tells an error riddled, amusing summary of the various branches of government, elections, and other failures of democracy. Each page is illustrated with graphs, charts, archival photos, pull quotes, footnotes, and quizzes. Breaking up the text are tables that allow you to decide which of the Founding Mothers was a FMILF as well one in which you Meet Your Lobbyists (such as Big Tobacco who are listed as representing: “The fine people behind Kent, Kool, Benson & Hedges, Salem, Virginia Slims, Lucky Strike, and yes, you hippie jackasses, American Spirit”). Other tables explain why the Founding Fathers would be unelectable today.

  • Benjamin Franklin: Loved the ladies. Loved ‘em old, young, fat, thin, whatever…Also, once wrote: ‘As to Jesus…I have some doubts as to his divinity.’ Kiss red states goodbye.
  • Thomas Jefferson: ‘Ms. Hemings? Connie Chung on line one.’
  • George Washington: Bad teeth and syphilis.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Had unfortunate tendency to duel…and lose.

The delightful little piece of audio entertainment, an abridged version of the book, starts off with a disclaimer (one of those little quick talking bits that come at the end of drug commercials and loan ads) that tells us that this book is no substitution for watching television. This is followed by Stewart welcoming “the non-reader.” Could it be any more insultingly hysterical? Yes. It keeps on with the laughs, Stewart reading the bulk of the book, some of the more audio-friendly sidebars read by Daily Show regulars Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Rob Corddry. Often a number of the jokes in the book are less funny when read silently, coming off sometimes dorky, but this particular passage gains a juvenile hilarity from Stewart’s gentle emphasis:

If the President is the head of the American body politic, Congress is its gastrointestinal tract. Its vast and convoluted inner workings may be unpleasant, but in the end they excrete a great deal of material whose successful passage is crucial to our nation’s survival. This is Congress’ duty.

While this kind of juvenile humor is rife throughout the book (for example, in a quiz to pick the one thing that shouldn’t be in your political ad, be sure to select “You teabagging a hooker”), there are a number of slyer, subtle jokes. Favorites of mine include the date on the Afterword “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921,” this date on the Democracy timeline “May 3, 325 B.C.” corresponding to “Rome built,” and a small insert picture of a crucifix with the caption “Have you heard the Good News?”

All in all, the mix of high and low humor, broad and subtle, clever and obvious makes America: The Book in both its forms an entertaining work guaranteed* to amuse anyone who reads it. With Christmas coming up, with my library copy due back in about one week, email me at the above address and I can provide you with the address of a deserving critic.

* Not a guarantee.

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