Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and W. Kamau Bell’s “Totally Biased”

The central conundrum of the Fox media empire continues. The corporation that can create venal reality television while publishing The Wall Street Journal, produce Fox News’s “War on Christmas” with Family Guy‘s “I Need a Jew” song, has now rent that  Murdochian conundrum to its deepest division yet: the corporation that has so fouly racialized Obama’s politics is also bringing us the most progressive comedy on television: W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased, which returned to the airwaves last week.  I want to grab everyone I know, shake them vigorously, and demand they watch the show with a fervor I haven’t experienced since Enlightenment.

But I want to step back first, to two shows that can perhaps be seen as precursors to Totally Biased: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and specifically their hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  The heat of these shows has cooled over the years from their mid-aughts heyday, when the right wing railed that 20-somethings only got their news from these comedy shows.  Now Stewart and Colbert have nestled comfortably into the mainstream, as lower-rated Johnny Carsons sending us off to bed comfortably.  They both deliver liberal dissatisfaction in different registers, Stewart with a kind of Jack Lemmonesque exhaustion at our ugly world and Stephen Colbert with a bloviating Bill O’Reilly persona that he has sustained–almost remarkably–for over 8 years.

Both shows have a lot of recommend–in particular, their interview segments.  While their brand of humor has gotten commonplace and a bit dull for me, both Colbert and Stewart, in different ways, have elevated the television interview, Stewart’s recent thoughtful conversation with Al Gore as a prime example.  But both shows also ring hollow, and more so as the episodes and years pass on.  Stewart and Colbert spend the overwhelming bulk of their time criticizing the mainstream media, pointing out foibles, errors, and idiocies across the cable and network news spectrum.  This can be hilarious, and also serves a kind of watch-dog quality to the mainstream news media.  Stewart’s iteration of The Daily Show (he became host in 1999) grew into this role following the debacle of the 2000 election; Colbert debuted in 2005 with O’Reilly and other Fox News demagogues in his sites.  And in the early aughts, with Fox News on the ascendent and cable news in general spiraling out of control, both men felt like a breath of fresh air. But the longer both remain on television, the less urgent their comedy seems.  Fox’s schtick has become predictable, and CNN’s desperate pandering in the face of lower ratings is more pathetic than especially risible.  Yet each night, Colbert and Stewart rack up the faux pas of the media landscape, rolling their eyes and sighing at the collective stupidity on display.

If both men offered their audiences something beyond that eye-rolling perhaps the humor wouldn’t seem so empty and easy.  But over the years Colbert and Stewart have shown a lack of critical insight into their own projects.  The Daily Show‘s “woman problem” of 2010 revealed this, as Stewart essentially claimed that his show is liberal, and therefore can’t be sexist.  The show seems to have taken no real opportunity to think about the legitimate charge of sexism, always keeping one token female correspondent around and trotting out  creator Lynn Winstead whenever the sexism charge emerges (The Daily Show might look to Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry, Erin Burnett, and other women on cable news and take some inspiration). But the most obvious example of both show’s political laziness was their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”  Ostensibly, the  dual rallies (Stewart’s sincerity operating in contrast to Colbert’s arch irony) were meant to diffuse the extremism of American political debate, where marginal and extreme  voices have presumably taken over.  I suppose that’s a worthy goal, if one’s understanding of politics comes exclusively from cable news outlets.  Essentially, what Stewart and Colbert called for was a more fruitful media conversation about  American politics.  This is hardly the material of a rally, and held in contrast to rallies about the Keystone Pipeline and immigration reform, “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” looks petty indeed.  And to me, it reveals the fundamental pettiness of both shows’ political vision.  Stewart and Colbert seem animated by the nostalgia one sees in the film Good Night and Good Luck, where the media used to be a bulwark against potential abuses of power.  Stewart in particular is a prophet/clown, dreaming with his audience of a time when someone like Edward R. Murrow will come to save us.  His chummy relationship with the (admittedly hilarious) Brian Williams reflects this problem; these handsome, natty newscasters simply want a liberal consensus, which is just a bedtime story.

But W. Kamau Bell moves the conversation forward, and that is what makes the show so special to me. Totally Biased borrows from the Stewart/Colbert template that has become a commonplace of half-hour comedies. His opening segment is a commentary on the week’s news events, with Bell offering jokes and commentaries along with news footage and images.  But Bell elevates the conversation with his trenchant ability to discuss race and the media in a thoughtful way.  Last week’s episode involved Bell walking through Harlem with a nondescript white guy, offering people of color on the street the chance to ask the man anything about white people they wanted to.  The responses were hilarious at times, while also being humane and very smart.  And Bell worked his magic effectively, allowing those on the street to speak their peace and as a result, reveal some thoughtful and trenchant comments about race to emerge (think of it as the exact opposite of Jay Leno’s smug “Jaywalking” routines).  This man-on-the-street bit reveals Bell’s great gift as a host; that he can be both tremendously smart and funny while allowing a lot of space for others to have their say.  There is no Colbert-like monologue here.

Last week’s episode revealed this quality in two other distinct moments.  Bell’s guest was MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.  During the course of the interview Bell played a clip of himself on Perry’s weekend morning show, in which she took him to task for a glib comment about black women he made.  In essence, Bell said something dumb, was rightly chastised for it by Harris-Perry, and then invited her onto his show to allow her to do it again and thank her for her criticism!  It wasn’t a shame-faced mea culpa, but a moment of tremendous honesty in which Bell willingly gave up a portion of his authority on his own show, and which lead to a charming and smart interview.  The final major bit of the evening involved comedian Janine Brito reflecting on the coming out of Jason Collins, and the media’s neglect of his lesbian foremothers.  Bell’s writing crew seems to be remarkably diverse (in contrast to The Daily Show and Colbert Report) and they regularly contribute to the show on camera as well as off.  What this all adds up to is a host who graciously and gracefully shares his modest weekly half hour with a diverse crew of queers, people of color, and other progressive misfits.  Bell’s show doesn’t fantasize about the old days of a media consensus; Totally Biased attempts to create a safe space where diverse people listen to one another, laugh, and occasionally hug it out.

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