Comedic News from a Real War

by Kelly McDonald

The DailyShow with Jon Stewart, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning satirical news program, madeheadlines again this past week when correspondent Rob Riggle reported frominside Iraq. The show’s reach is large, with nearly one and ahalf million nightly viewers making it among cable television’s highest watched programs. Host Jon Stewart’s book America[The Book] sold over 2.5 million copies and his confrontation with CNN Crossfire anchors Tucker Carlson and PaulBegala has over 500,000 hits on YouTube and was cited by CNN president Jonathan Klein as he announced the cancellation of the longrunning political debate program.

Reporter Rob Riggle, The Daily Show’s Senior Military Affairs Correspondent, is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and has earned over 19 medals and ribbons from service in Liberia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He is also currently on tour as part of thecurrent United Service Organizations (USO) show. In a series of stories aired the week of August 20, 2007, Riggle reported on events in and around the Iraq capitol.

During hissegments, Riggle was shown doing a variety of activities from mail call to firing weapons. When returning to the studio, he kissed the desk as an expression of his happiness to be home, joking “you should see what I did to the tarmac at the airport.” The bawdy humor and searing irony in his segments are not an attack on the men and women fighting in the war. Instead, the joke is on the failures of those who were in charge of it, or the rightful stewards of the public trust who failed to ask critical questions of those in charge.

Principles

The humorous style of The Daily Show with JonStewart highlights missteps of the media, politicians and institutions. The program enacts what Kenneth Burke, in Attitudes Toward History, noted as the active and engaged nature of the comic perspective – one that allows individuals to be “to be observers of themselves, while acting” (p. 171). While Burke does not equate a comic view with humor, it is a perspective which he argues allows us to “‘remoralize’ by accurately naming a situation already demoralized byinaccuracy” (309). The noted failures of planned reconstruction efforts, for example, are frequent topics for Stewart under the banner “Mess O’ Potamia” (a pun onthe name of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers).

For Burke,comedy is the means of promoting a rethinking of the situation before us. This perspective is accomplished primarily through what Burke termed perspective by incongruity; that is, the challenging of oppositions and the consideration of a “rationale for locating the irrational and the non-rationale” (p. 171). The absurdity of thoughts of vacationing in a war zone or distributing bulk mail coupons for home townstores to soldiers based overseas is impossible to maintain. These comedic performances cannot be reconciled rationally, forcing audiences to rethink the targeted situation.

Analysis

Rob Riggle’s recent foreign correspondent segments on The Daily Show’s segments brought out the voices of actual soldiers rather than officers or members of the Joint Chiefs, the most popular pundits on news programs. Set to the background of “Vacation” by the Go-Gos, Riggle introduces a segment called “Greetings from Baghdad, Iraq,” (with an appropriate postcard-like graphic) where soldiers commented on the Iraqi Parliament’s summer break noting “Have fun on your vacation. We’ll behere holding down the fort. Because this is an actual, frigging fort.” When Stewart commented that the soldiers might be discouraged, Riggle noted “they’re [the soldiers] thrilled parliament’s gone. It’s like their parents are out of town. This place has a real Risky Business vibe…,” noting that soldiers were dancing in their underwear, not for joy, butbecause it was “130 f***ing degrees here.”

Importantly,Riggle’s visit to Iraq was done with military permission. “I didn’t go as a Marine in any shape or form,” he told the Daily News. “I went as a comedian.” Riggle’s nightly ritual renaming his visit (e.g. “Operation Silent Thunder,” “Operation Fluffy Bunny,” “Operation Macho Kick-Ass”) borrowed from military parlance and provided comic relief by poking fun at military culture. Using a dramatic introductory sound track and graphics used in network news pieces, The Daily Show highlighted the absurdity of the political process – such as Representative Mike Pense, Indiana Republican, who commented that Baghdad was “like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summer time.”

The attentiveness of its viewers to current events and their political attitudes makes The Daily Show a significant piece of the domestic political landscape. According to a study conducted during the 2004 presidential election by the Annenberg School of Communication’s Dannagal Goldthwaite Young:

People who watch The Daily Show are more interested in the presidential campaign, more educated, younger, and more liberal than the average American. In fact, Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers.

As The Daily Show introduces current political topics, Young argues that viewers learn something about the people and events, feeding into what is likely already a heightened political awareness. Coupled with the trend of blurred lines between types of media – news and entertainment, television and the internet – this heightened awarenessmeans that consumers will have additional outlets and resources from which to select media content. Researchersconcluded that “even though The Daily Show generates cynicism toward the media and the electoral process, it simultaneously makes young viewers more confident about their own ability to understand politics.” Through segments like these inI raq, Daily Show viewers were able to see courageous, funny, and even sarcastic soldiers working to make the best of an otherwise very difficult situation. This sense-making and internal efficacy fostered by The Daily Show is exactly where Burke saw the life-enriching potential of the comic corrective.

FurtherReading

  • Burke, K. (1937/1984). Attitudes Toward History, (3rd Ed.).  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kohut, Andrew, Morin, Richard and Keeter, Scott. (2007, April 15). “What Americans Know: 1989-1997: Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Changed Little by News and Information Revolutions.” Report released by the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press. Retreived from http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/319.pdf.
  • Program clips and Iraq episodes can be watched at the homepage of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.