Thursday, October 3, 2013

The brilliance of The Daily Show

When you move to a new country, you have to learn a new way of living. Old habits and creature comforts have to be parted with and you have to find new joys and rituals in your current surroundings to really make yourself feel at home. But after three plus years abroad I have still held on to one aspect of my American life, and that is I am still an avid viewer of The Daily Show. One of my favorite memories of Jon Stewart was not even from the Daily Show. It was my freshaman year at college and I was flipping through channels and landed on CNN and watched one of the greatest live segments I’ve ever seen
(A 2004 episode of CNN’s Crossfire, co-hosted by Tucker Carlson [right] Paul Begala [left]. Stewart stated that the show [Crossfire] was more theatrics than actual debate, as it purports to be. Carlson retorted with indignation that Stewart, who had recently interviewed then presidential candidate Kerry and “sniffed his throne,” [Carlson’s words] would accuse them [Begala and Carlson] of partisan hackery) Stewart: “You’re on CNN! The show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls, what is wrong with you?” 
Stewart has on ocassion alluded to the low brow nature of some of Comedy Central’s other programs to contextualize the jocularity of the show, even though many people (this viewer included) consider it a vital source of current events. There are many reasons I love this show but more than anything I appreciate the attention to detail Stewart and the staff writers put into the writing. 

I was inspired to write about this after reading an article titled Separating the Sheep from the Goats: Celebrity Satire as Fair Use Nicholas D. Sirabella. Sirabella’s article deals with parody and satire and their history with copyright law as it pertains to “fair use.” In the title, “fair use,” refers to the legally accepted use of copyright material (for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research) as it pertains to the Fair Use Doctrine, which was added to the Copyright Act in 1976 (Sirabella, 778). In determining whether a particular use of copyright material is fair, courts are to consider:

1.     the purpose and character of the use [made by the defendant-person accused of copyright infringement], including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2.     the nature of the copyrighted work;
3.     the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4.     the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”  17 U.S.C. § 107 
According to Sirabella, in a celebrity satire, for example a segment on the Daily Show, “the satirist [Stewart] references a copyrighted work because it indirectly-but strongly-evokes a celebrity in a specific way.” (Sirabella, 788) As an example you see the graphic displayed (taken from the Daily Show’s website from the episode that aired on September 25, 2013) which serves as a deliciously witty reference to the 80s cult classic buddy film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure , starring Keanu Reeves (Bill) and some other dude (Ted) as San Dimas high school students who go on an excellent time travelling adventure. As I am not a copyright lawyer, I cannot attest to a situation where one uses the title of a movie and then becomes in jeopardy of having misapropriated (unfairly used) a copyrighted work (the title of a film). But in this case it constitutes, in my opinion, what Sirabella describes as fair use through celebrity satire. The plot and characters of this movie serve as a perfect mode to frame this, if I may borrow a word used liberally by Reeve’s character in the film, bogas story. By inserting only the word “healthcare” into the title viewers who have seen or are familiar with the film now have an idea of the tone of the story, namely one of a light hearted comedic romp that will feature a healthcare bill and Senator Ted Cruz.

One of the main points Sirabella makes is that celebrity satire, which he deliniates from parody, satisfies criterion established in previous landmark cases for fair use of copyright material
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (1994) and Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. (2006). The former involving rap group 2 Live Crew’s song “Pretty Woman” being protected as fair use because it was a clear (clear, as established by the court) parody of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and the latter referring to the use of clips from films in a television biography of an actor, as the clips served a clear purpose (according to the court) in the context of the biography (Sirabella, Lans).

At the crux of the argument for considering parody as fair use purpose is that using another (copyright) work to comment on something can enhance the overall “impact of the criticsm or comment.” (Sirabella, 776) and how this kind of use is “productive: in which there existed a socially laudable benefit to the public beyond that provided by the prior [original] work.” (Sirabella, 779). Another point for considering parody as fair use as established in Campbell is that without using the borrowed material, the effect of the commentary is not the same. That is, the commentator could not use some other material and deliver the same message-using the borrowed work is a necessary part of the commentary. (Campbell, 510 U.S. 580-81) In the case of the Daily Show episode I’m referring to, using any other film in that graphic would not have resulted in the same effect for the purpose of covering this story and offering comedic commentary on it.

Sirabella goes on to distiguish between parody and satire stating that a parody is referencing and commenting on the same work, whereas in satire a work is referenced but in order to comment on something else; and in celebrity satire a copyrighted work is referenced, because it indirectly-but strongly-evokes a celebrity in a specific way.” (Sirabella, 788) In my opinion, the word celebrity in this context refers to both the person offering the critique, in this case Stewart, of another prominent personality, in this case a politician, whom in today’s media has come to represent a kind of celebrity as their actions and remarks have become increasingly publicized and scrutinized to a similar extent as entertainers.

I thought of a recent segment on the Daily Show where Jon Stewart summarizes Ted Cruz’s 21 hour Senate speech against Obamacare. The style of coverage is such that clips of the speech in question are played punctuated with witty remarks by Stewart in between. Stewart effectively turned the 21 hour monolgue into a sort of interview, where in these pauses he would ask a question phrased in such a way that simultaneously introduces another segment of the speech to answer the “question” posed, and highlights the absurdity of some of Cruz’s remarks. Even though the viewing audience were probably aware of what Cruz was speaking against when this episode aired, Stewart didn’t even mention “Obamacare” to introduce the story. In my opinion, this move is crucial to the step-by-step deconstruction of Cruz’s speech culminating with a brilliant example of a satirical parody, and to demonstrate the chasm that exists between Cruz’s rhetoric and the “threat” posed by Obamacare.

First Cruz’s preamble is played, where he explains whom he is speaking for and what Americans are interested in (Stewart: “Stuff crust pizza? No wait…”) Cruz: “freedom.” Stewart then “asks” Cruz to cite “a historical precedent that is apropriate to the threat we now face” the video clip continues with Cruz referencing 1940s “Nazi Germany” and historical figures who were prepared to accept the Nazi party and that “in America there were voices who listened to that [cries of people like Neville Chamberlain who said people should appease the nazis]” Then comes the reveal that Cruz is speaking in favor of defunding the health care law. Stewart: “Yes, it’s Ted Cruz…casting himself as Churchill to Obama’s Chamberlain in the great fight against…Hitler’s…health care exchanges..I lost the thread of the metaphor” 

Stewart prefaces the remaining clips mentioning Cruz’s academic prowess as a Harvard graduate with the reassurance that he will provide a cogent line of argumentation to explain his opinion of Obamacare as a threat to the American people and justify the tone of his talk to that point. This sort of commentary demonstrates the satirical nature of the Daily Show as it is at this point obvious to the viewer that Stewart knows what is coming next and how ridiculous it is, but for the purpose of commenting on the impotence of Cruz’s speech, and in order to let the audience come to that conclusion on their own, Stewart appears to give him the benefit of the doubt and continue offering Cruz chances to redeem himself and the validity of his cause. The next clip reveals Cruz mentioning a tweet of a speech made by Ashton Kutcher. Stewart: “Senator! You…say we are facing one of the great perils of our age and yet you’ve outsourced your argument and wisdom to a dude who can’t find his car?”

Stewart implores Cruz to cite a study or a book to give weight to his arguments-cut to Cruz reading from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. Stewart then points out the irony in Cruz reading Green Eggs and Ham in his speech to oppose Obamacare (Stewart: “You go with a book about a stubborn jerk who decides he hates something before he’s tried it”) Stewart points out Cruz’s lack of substantive critique and potentially misleading information put forward regarding economic troubles and loss of jobs as a result of Obamacare coupled with no real proposed alternatives as reminiscent of another “famed Dr. Seuss character, the Bore-ax.” 

As a note, The Lorax is one of children author Dr. Seuss’ most popular books, written in the 1970s amidst the environmental movement and containing such themes as “citizenship, environmentalism, the necessity for businesses to practice sustainable use of resources and making room for natural environments and economic development” (Quaden and Ticotsky), whose title character and hero speaks on behalf of the trees and appears from the stump of the first Truffula fell to warn of the consequences of industry encroaching on natural habitats. 

“He was shortish and oldish and brownish and mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy” (taken from the Lorax) The Onceler, the other main character and symbol for the potential threat of big commerce, cuts down Truffula trees in a pristine valley and in his factory turns them into Thneeds to be sold for a profit. Seuss is known for creating words that sound somehow like other words, most of the time to facilitate the rhyming pentameter of his stories. Another aspect of Seuss’ syntax would be taking a word that is one part of speech, say a comparative adjective, and transforming it into a present or past participle participle verb as in “Business is business and business must grow. I biggered my factory, I biggered my roads, I biggered my wagons, I biggered the loads…I went right on biggering selling more Thneeds. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs”

Slowly the Onceler’s operation grows and more trees are cut down and the Lorax again appears pleading on behalf of the local fauna who are no longer able to live “on the far end of town where the Grickle grass grows.” Eventually all the trees are cut down and the factory that once boomed becomes empty. The Lorax then departs leaving only a stump with the word “Unless” carved into it. The Onceler then explains what he realized it meant to a young boy listening to his story “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better it’s not”

The Bore-ax, the satirical retelling of the Cruz story, contains characteristic Seussian constructions (“In the land of DC in the senate of snooze, lived the showboatiest blab whose name was Ted Cruz. Cruz talked about healthcare, compared it to Nazis. As comparisons go, he was off by a lotsies”) and word play with a few bleeped out words “Repeal it, defund it, erase it, deny it. Murder it skull f%&$ it, bread and deep fry it,” which Stewart then comments on as odd for a children’s book. The Daily Show co-opted a literary style and adapted a well-known story in order to deliver social commentary on an inefficacious attempt to speak on behalf of a group that cannot speak for themselves. As Sirabella puts it, “The parodist mimics certain attributes of the work to ensure that the audience recognizes it, but diminishes or exaggerates other attributes of the original work to focus the attention of the audience on the broader commentary.” (Sirabella, 787-788)

The function of the Bore-ax (as a clear reference to the Lorax) in the context of recapping the Cruz story is manifold. If one deconstructs the Lorax into his set of defining attributes, you can see the brilliance in the metaphor used by the Daily Show to critique Cruz’s “mouth masturbation” The Lorax is depicted as a kind of wet blanket with an inability to compel the Onceler to listen to what he is saying. Though the Lorax has a message worth listening to, the way it is delivered is not convincing. The similarities to Cruz in this case are striking, though he is an elected official and not a self-proclaimed representative as the Lorax is, and his goals are arguably less virtuous than the Lorax’s. Nevertheless the imagry of the Lorax, a kind of martyr speaking for the masses, decrying change, complaining of destruction and warning of impending doom yet without offering any compromises, serves the purpose of commenting on Cruz’s approach to criticizing Obamacare quite well in this viewer’s opinion.

In the end of Seuss’ story, the Onceler realizes he should have listened to the Lorax because he was right about the dangers of unbridled expansion. However, the conclusion of the Bore-ax offers the Daily Show’s ultimate critique of Cruz’s talk, namely that Cruz could have better spent his time and effort working on the bill itself (before it became a law and later deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court) rather than pontificating atop his stump on behalf of those he “represents.”

Works Cited:

Lans, Maxine. June 10, 1994. “Supreme Court gives good rap to parody” Marketing News page 10 accessed October 1, 2013

Quaden, Rob and Alan Ticotsky. 2012 Creative Learning Exchange. “Lessons from The Lorax” accessed October 1, 2013

Sirabella, Nicholas D. December 2011. Separating the Sheep from the Goats: Celebrity Satire As Fair Use Cardozo Law Review vol. 33 no. 2page 773 accessed October 1, 2013 summary of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (92-1292), 510 U.S. 569 (1994)  The Lorax Dr. Seuss 1971 Random House NY


Screenshot images taken from episode Wednesday 25 September 2013 from

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