Oct 31, 2004  •  Post A Comment

There were pundits. There were funsters. Then something horrible happened. There were fundits. A fundit neither a pundit nor a funster is. We’ve got some weird new 21st century combination of the two. And from the looks (and sounds) of things, they’re useless. They’re just another way to trash up politics on television and make it more television, less politics.

Of course, the media rage these days-incredibly enough, in the weeks leading up to the election, when other matters should have dominated the magazine covers and TV interview shows-is Jon Stewart, proprietor and anchor of Comedy Central’s weak and lame “Not Necessarily the News.” Oh wait, that was another show like this show, only it was years ago on HBO. And “That Was the Week That Was,” which some network newsmag is using as a weekly closing comedy segment, was a series on NBC 40 years ago.

No, the Stewart show is called, uhhh, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and the brilliant idea here was, “Let’s steal the Weekend Update segment from `Saturday Night Live’ and make a whole show out of it.” Except for such contributors as the blazing-hot Lewis Black (who is much funnier when he can be uncensored), the show is no blossoming garden of talent. You’ll find funnier folk on “MadTV” or even “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Come to think of it, you’ll sometimes find funnier folk on “Meet the Press”; that is, the targets of all the smug derision, those dumb stupid politicians that Stewart is always smirking at, can be funnier, sometimes on purpose, than the satirists.

Anyway, Stewart was on the cover of nearly every magazine in the country, as if he were some sort of grand national jester, and here’s Comedy Central reaching relatively tiny audiences and “The Daily Show” having a constituency of well under 3 million people. At press time, they were scheduled to do their own election-night coverage, for people who are bored by the real thing. But wait-don’t you have to be informed about politics and politicians to appreciate the jokes on “Daily Show,” and if you are, then wouldn’t you have to be some kind of split-level idiot to watch joke returns instead of real returns? In a word, yes.

“Daily Show” has a split personality anyway. All of a sudden the comedy (or what comedy there was) will cease and Stewart will do a straight interview with a politician. He even interviews Republican politicians, who presumably come on the show to prove they have a sense of humor and are willing to laugh along with Stewart’s blunted jabs. And there is one of Stewart’s secrets: Do “satire” so innocuous and diluted that it has no sting. The satire on “Daily Show” is to real satire what sitcoms are to a Billy Wilder classic comedy.

Bill Maher, over on HBO’s “Real Time,” has it easier in that he only has to come up with one hour a week, and, in true dispiriting HBO tradition, for only a couple of months a year. But otherwise, Maher does a much more intelligent, more challenging and, most important and noticeably of all, gutsier show than Stewart. He can be brilliant, and brilliantly vicious.

True, Maher also interviews real politicos and other public figures (on a super-cool dangling glass screen), but somehow he can get away with that and still maintain his comic identity. And he’s more serious about his subject matter, anyway, so that he is more pundit than funster or fundit on his show. He puts some passion into his positions and the way he presents them and he risks something Stewart (like every stand-up comic) would appear terrified of-not getting laughs on every line. Even getting booed. Being unpopular. He dares to goose the sitting duck.

Stewart, perhaps feeling a trifle guilty about his namby-pambiness-his pursed-lipped, twinkle-eyed mugging into a camera-came up with a surprise not long ago when he appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” to promote his new book. The book had already hit first place on The New York Times list, so Stewart had little to gain by irking “Crossfire’s” relatively small audience and playing little Mr. Bad Boy. Perhaps because he had no material Stewart bared his fangs-really fangettes-and bit that day’s co-hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, on the toesies.

His line of attack wasn’t terribly coherent, but Stewart seemed to be complaining that “Crossfire” trivializes the issues it examines by insisting that its guests bicker and quibble, and that the hosts do the same thing. This is news to Stewart? “Crossfire” certainly has its limitations, but it’s not as silly as “The McLaughlin Group,” which became a parody of itself a decade ago and even tries to maintain, as a nearly extinct phrase goes, “a modicum of decorum.”

But Stewart turned what could have been just another book-plugging appearance into a newsmaker by loonily assaulting his hosts. He may have made a valid point or two, but reading the transcript, Stewart comes across as at best semi-coherent. He sounds like the kind of babbling homeless vagrants who wander city streets shouting at imaginary nemeses.

If I’m being too hard on Stewart, it’s because everybody else has been too easy. Why all the attention? Journalists, especially print journalists, love any show that’s about themselves and the trade they ply. It’s an unfortunate development. Stewart has buddy-buddied up to enough establishment print journalists to be hailed by them as some heroic anti-establishment Don Quixote. But Stewart picks only on tiny, toy windmills, and his spear is a Q-tip. He is simply the most overpraised performer on TV.

Which brings us to the strange case of Al Franken, whose low-impact radio show on a failing public-interest network has now, like Howard Stern’s radio show before his, been turned into a TV version of itself-minimally, with a camera or two stationed in the radio studio, trained on Franken much of the time as he rants and raves in surprisingly ineffective ways. His books, especially his most recent, have been terrific, except that Franken will be pursuing a line of very valid and effective criticism and then suddenly launch into jokey stuff. Readers can’t always know when he’s seriously taking on real people or doing his wee jests and japes.

He’s a kind of Dr. Pundit and Mr. Cried, one moment scoffing at targets and the next moment foaming with rabid indignation. I don’t mean everyone should find a pigeon-hole and stuff themselves into it, but this has been the real flip-flopping of the campaign, often flopping just when it tried to be the most flippant.