Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jon Stewart and his significance to Indian media




That's cheesy, Mr President: Obama on air with the witty Jon Stewart

When the most powerful citizen in the world makes an appearance on your TV show seven times, and makes special efforts to cultivate you, rest assured that you have made it as a showman. In fact, Barack Obama, on his last appearance on this show had quirkily commented to its host, “Can’t believe that you are leaving before me.”

Little wonder, then, that when Jon Stewart bid adieu to The Daily Show, the US late-night talk-cum-satire show that he had anchored for 16 years, news organizations from around the world — Bloomberg and The Times of India included — chose to chronicle his career. Every news organization worth its salt compiled “when Jon Stewart made us look back at serious moments” videos. His contemporaries and rivals alike have been busy penning eulogies that have swamped the virtual world. Needless to say, social media and the internet have been awash with tributes and brickbats, depending on one’s political allegiance.

Like Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman before him, it was Stewart’s turn to be the toast of the town one last time.

A show that donned the roles of an entertainer, activist, educator and, at times, thinker and philosopher, with aplomb, The Daily Show’s USP was its irreverence to everything it surveyed. Politics and the media were its cannon fodder, and the show evoked laughter by bringing to our attention their failing and flailing alike. It had its pet targets – Wall Street, Fox News, the conservatives and Republican politicos (George Bush Jr, Sarah Palin and more recently, the maverick Donald Trump), to name a few – which lent the show a distinct liberal identity.

Apart from being an eclectic mix of comedy and serious content, the show surreptitiously slipped in a message or its stance on various issues, signalling that it was here not just to entertain, but also inform. It was as if Stewart was playing barometer of public sentiment, curating and airing it.

And herein lay the biggest success of The Daily Show: it positioned itself as a trusted name in the cut-throat world that is the US media. For that, it may have to thank events in the country’s politics over the years. Events such as George Bush Jr’s much-contested victory over Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential elections, the decision to invade Iraq and hang Saddam Hussein over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, while the American media played choir-boy, were a god-send to Stewart. 

And boy, he lapped it up. 

Credibility via comedy: People behind the show that included
Ed Helms of 'The Hangover' series, and Steve Carrell
Thus, it wasn’t too long before the “fake news programme” saw its credibility soaring, almost on par with mainstream news outlets such as CNN, ABC, MSNBC or Fox News (to be fair, the show made a feast out of these channels’ egregious and not-so egregious blunders). Survey after survey underlined that many youngsters watched the show for its news content as well as entertainment.

In a way he was like the legendary cartoonist R K Laxman, who is remembered for saying, “After all these years I still look forward to our politicians, for they provide me with the daily inspiration that I earnestly seek.”

Thus, when TIME magazine profiled the show’s talismanic anchor as a “liver or a filter in the American discourse that absorbs a torrent filled with politics, punditry and sensationalism and passes it through in a form that you can safely tolerate”, it wasn’t indulging in hyperbole.

Stewart’s show may have been the recipient of a mélange of honours, he may have hosted the Academy Awards ceremony twice and authored books on the US economy, but he is an unknown entity to most of us Indians.

So, why should he matter to us?

A lot, going by the manner in which his show portrayed contemporary American issues.

Sample this: When the US government, to much dismay, decided to bail out Lehmann Brothers and other leading financial institutions that went belly-up after causing the infamous global financial catastrophe of ’08, he hollered on the show, “We just paid someone to f*** us!” In another episode, he remarked, “Looks like the biggest winners of the global downturn are the very ones who caused it, and by gainer I refer to the ones dipping their ba**s in gold.”

When George Bush Jr got elected as President in 2000 after an election that was the subject of intense drama, debate, suspicion and speculation, his first address to the nation was, “I haven’t been elected to serve any particular constituent. The entire nation…” To which, Stewart cheekily said: “You weren’t elected.”

The expletives aside, the quasi-comic in Stewart had graduated to playing moral compass to a nation’s conscience.

Every time I watched his show I wished he were an Indian phenomenon.

American TV history is awash with accounts of how Stewart engineered the collapse of CNN’s debate-show Crossfire. He appeared on it and made a compelling argument to its hosts to shun the slanging matches that characterized the show and do something more productive. An embarrassed CNN took note, and pulled the plug on it.

Wonder what he would have made of the prime-time spectacles on Indian TV news channels.

Interviewing the gritty Malala Yousafzai
Some of Stewart’s jabs extended to the Indian landscape as well. Like, for instance, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, when most of us would have likely been introduced to The Daily Show.

In that episode, a correspondent travels to India, surveys its electoral landscape and the media, and contrasts it with its American counterparts for comical effect. This segment is best remembered for casting the spotlight on paid news, a phenomenon which the Indian media has tended to shy about, and our TV channels’ fetish for hideous graphic elements. (Bonus: an interview of then CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai in which he emerges a chump)

The perspective of the outsider aside, here was a programme that nailed the biggest ill of the Indian media in a matter of minutes. The show rubbed it in by saying, “Forget prime-time debates, the first thing you guys (media houses) must be talking about is paid news.”

To be fair, it isn’t that the Indian TV media has shied away from satire or criticism altogether. However, one does get the feeling that the programmes that attempt them err on the side of caution. The satire is tempered to such an extent that its purpose is lost, thanks to the fear of repercussions from our political masters, or their proxies.

Cyrus Broacha, anchor of CNN-IBN’s The Week That Wasn’t, which could be considered the Indian approximation to The Daily Show, had rued at the stifling atmosphere faced by the media, and comedy shows in specific. He had remarked at a not-so recent literary event in Bengaluru that comedy was actually a process of elimination. “You begin with the ones (persons) whom you do not want to offend… you don’t want to offend X, Y or Z, hence the content diminishes. In the end, 95% of the stuff is left out and what you have is either sterile or unfunny or both.”

The Indian Stewart? Cyrus on CNN-IBN's weekly show
The Week That Wasn’t is one of the few Indian TV shows that actually pokes fun at politicians and their idiosyncrasies, and ends up looking sensible (Sorry India Today, So Sorry is plain silly). Broacha’s show is also one of the few that satirize editors of media houses, too — a commodity in India that is as rare as the Kohinoor diamond. Which means Broacha’s comments could be considered their weight in gold.

What he may have not said is perception matters: focus on the follies of the Congress and you get labeled a Sanghi/ rabid right-winger; do that to the BJP and you are called a “commie” and may receive complimentary flight tickets to Pakistan.

But then, Stewart never made a secret about his slant to the Democrats. That’s hardly the reason people reminisce over him and his show.

Are we listening?


(**Pictures: Internet. I do not own the copyright to any of the photos)