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Michelle Wolf Was Never Gonna Be Your Jon Stewart, America

As Facebook and Google continue to swallow the advertising industry whole, media outlets ever more desperately chase those coveted clicks and eyeballs, luring audiences with the reliable bait of sensationalism. Nothing plays quite like shock and outrage, and when all else fails, there’s always a Trump rally to fill the time, or a “whataboutist,” bad-faith take to fill the op-ed pages. If the New York Times and CNN have disappointed with their urge to both-sides every issue to death, liberals have come to count on late-night comedians to step into the much-needed role of truth-teller.

Michelle Wolf is having none of that. Over the course of ten uneven but steadily improving episodes of her abruptly canceled Netflix series, The Break With Michelle Wolf, the 33-year-old comedian flatly refused to play this part. “I’m not gonna try to teach you anything or discuss political policy with you,” she vowed in the first episode. “I guess I’m sort of like a cable news show in that way.”

To some viewers, this may have seemed like a bait and switch; Wolf’s show arrived on the heels of her fantastic and somehow controversial White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech, which offered no mercy to the president and his enablers in the press. For those hoping for the second coming of Jon Stewart, The Break may have been a letdown: At its best, the show was a canny deconstruction of contemporary late-night comedy, which has been swamped with political satire since the former Daily Show host turned Bush-era liberal outrage comedy into its very own TV genre.

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In the three years since Stewart stepped down, the already blurry line between journalism and entertainment has thinned to a fine mist, a perpetual fog that leaves viewers blindly groping for solid ground. But unlike almost every other late-night host in the age of Trump, Wolf didn’t take this reality as an invitation to climb aboard a soapbox. On The Break, she wore the uniform of skinny jeans and high-top sneakers that she wears in her stand-up sets. She wasn’t fiery or pissed off; she was sardonic and irreverent. She’s the Vivian Gornick of comedy: Just as Gornick lives in service to the tale and not the teller, Wolf lives in service to the joke, not her own persona or crowd flattery.

Despite Wolf’s declaration that the title of her show promised a break from the relentless flow of Trump-related news, The Break was, of course, political. The show’s writers, led by Christine Nangle, demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the viral outrage cycle that is the news in 2018; in the opening monologue of the final episode, released on July 29, Wolf mentions that Ivanka Trump’s clothing line has folded, and instructs viewers to start buying up her wares now: “Nazi memorabilia tends to skyrocket in value.” In an aside directed at Fox News, Wolf adds, “Since we know you’re watching, we made this to save you the trouble” — and suddenly the screen is overlaid with a Fox & Friends graphic, accompanied by a chyron that blares, “‘COMEDIAN’ MICHELLE WOLF CALLS IVANKA TRUMP A NAZI.”

Despite The Break’s unapologetically liberal, feminist perspective — in one segment, Wolf presented a literal “salute to abortions” — the series didn’t only go after predictable targets of liberal indignation. The Break hit a high note in its eighth episode, which demonstrated the show’s stubborn refusal to pander to its left-leaning audience. Since this is a comedy show in 2018, Wolf declares at the beginning of a desk segment, one thing’s for sure — it’s going to be “sincere and angry.” “There will be graphics and facts,” she intones with rehearsed self-importance, “and it will feel a little bit like school.” She then proceeds to take apart the standard structure of such a segment, ending with a middle finger raised and a bleeped-out, “Fuck you, Trump!” The crowd applauds wildly as the words “standing ovation” appear in block letters on the screen.

The bit takes aim at the slightly smug, self-congratulatory tone of so much political satire these days: Can you believe I, a mere entertainer, have to do the media’s job? It finds a counterpoint in an earlier sketch that skewers the New York Times opinion section. Wolf plays a journalist pitching an editorial on foreign policy to the paper of record, before she learns that all submissions must first go through a Mad Hatter–like trickster on a tricycle named “Op Ed.” The man launches into a jaunty song-and-dance number (“Opinions are like assholes/I want to taste them all”) that suggests there is no logical editorial process behind the paper’s notoriously bad takes; there’s only an anarchic impulse to host any and all points of view, a carnival directed by a chaos-craving clown.

The sketch positions journalism as pure spectacle, just as the “sincere and angry” segment positions late-night comedy as a righteous fact-finding mission. The Break was the rare comedy to point up this contradiction rather than shrink away from it. It will be missed.

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What Jon Stewart Gets Wrong About Trump Voters

Unemployed drifter Jon Stewart surfaced on CBS This Morning for an interview with Charlie Rose, who asked the bearded oracle for his thoughts on the State of the Union following last Tuesday’s national upheaval. Stewartites, adrift as they’ve been since their Lord and Savior departed the Daily Show last year, pressed their faces into their screens, searching the lines of his wise, handsome face like a soothsayer consults tea leaves. They were probably disappointed.

One surprising aspect of the election has been the broad range of takeaways by what were previously considered some of our most cherished, adroit thinkers. Stewart, who for over sixteen years shepherded the nation’s liberal opinions with little resistance, offered almost nothing by way of poignant insight during his sit-down with Rose.

He begins by making the very astute point that no one bothered to ask Trump what, in his cloudy assessment, makes America great…in the first place. It became apparent somewhere during minute two of the first debate that Trump had no interest in answering any questions directly, so it seems unlikely that the response would have yielded any satisfaction.

Then Stewart cautions us against the blind antagonism with which many of us have reacted to the unimpeachable fact of an America positively surfeit with Trump voters.

“I thought Donald Trump disqualified himself at numerous points,” Stewart said. “But there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric.”

Indeed, last week’s rage has given way to a sort of defeated curiosity: Who are these deplorables, the ones who somehow looked past the stratospheric trash mountain of Trump’s racism and misogyny to what they perceive as their salvation?

“There are guys that I love, that I respect…who are not afraid of Mexicans, not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks — they’re afraid of their insurance premiums,” Stewart says.

He’s right, certainly, but that’s beside the point. Insurance premiums, as it happens, are not a partisan issue. Nothing on this fragile Earth gnaws at the edge of my consciousness more at night than the terror over my insurance premiums. Illness and death come for both sides of the aisle, and the system is woefully, desperately inept.

Still, it remains unfathomable that anyone could listen even passingly to Trump’s garbled rhetoric and take faith that this is the man who will rescue us from bloated health care costs.

“It’ll be better health care, much better, for less money,” Trump said during 60 Minutes last week. “Not a bad combination.”

But the details of this mythical panacea are thinner than his stupid $60,000 weave. He’ll immediately revoke the Affordable Care Act, maybe, potentially supplanting it with aspects of a plan proffered in the past by Congressional Republicans. Mostly it has to do with increased competition among insurance companies and some refinements to the tax code. It is not groundbreaking. (The New Yorker offers a lucid explainer.) More puzzling still is that Paul Ryan, who when the fog clears will be revealed as the man ultimately pulling the strings, is just thirsting to phase out Medicare, a system that benefits a sizable population of Trump voters.

Stewart urges us not to look at Trump voters as a monolith, articulating the prevailing Week Two Analysis: Those who voted for Trump, at least some of them, did so not because of their overt hatred of women or Muslims. They did it because they are desperate — for change, for health care, for fixes to dire issues occupying the everyday space of their own lives. Trump said that he would fix these things — he declined to go into specifics — and they, against all logic, believed him.

Is understanding the mind of the Trump Voter necessary? For anyone pursuing public office, absolutely. But for the rest of us? Does knowing thy enemy necessarily beget greater empathy? Or does it reveal the desperate misplacement of priorities, and the realization that perhaps there’s a greater chasm between us all than we’d previously thought?

Undoubtedly I am being closed minded, but when I look at Trump, my brain fails to comprehend anything other than a lobotomized orangutan whose very patient trainer has taught him to speak, kind of. Others saw something different. Maybe they saw a man who would purge the country of those dread Muslims and Mexicans. Maybe they saw a lesser of two evils. Maybe they’re concerned about their own economic futures, and didn’t so much mind throwing everyone else under the bus in pursuit of relief. Maybe they thought a woman, in a fit of PMS-induced pique, would smash her hormone-crazed fingers on the nuclear codes and blow us all to kingdom come. Maybe they’re enticed by Trump’s promises of job creation, ignoring the fact that he’s a conman who often failed to pay his own workers.

See? There are plenty of reasons a person might have voted for Trump. And not one of them exonerates any of these voters from what they have done.

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Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is Outraged, Cinematic, and Even Funny

During a 2009 Daily Show interview with Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who, earlier that year, had been imprisoned in Iran for 118 days on espionage charges, Jon Stewart said, “We hear a lot about the banality of evil, but so little about the stupidity of evil.” Or about its total humorlessness. Bahari had been arrested the previous June partly as the result of a Daily Show skit: Comedian Jason Jones, posing as the most phony-baloney spy imaginable, in a keffiyeh and dark glasses, interviewed Bahari in a Tehran café just before a fraught and ultimately explosive election. Why was Iran so evil? Jones demanded. The perfect straight man, Bahari gave a response that was deflective, sensitive, and articulate. That didn’t stop Iranian authorities from arresting him shortly after the election, four days after the episode aired, using The Daily Show as proof that Bahari himself was a spy.

Perhaps partly out of a sense of guilt, although probably mostly because he knows an astonishing story when he sees one, Stewart has made a movie — his debut as a director — based on Bahari’s experience. Rosewater is an earnest picture, but it’s also got some juice — there’s vitality and feeling in it, the secret ingredients so often missing from even the most well-intentioned first features. At the beginning of Rosewater, Gael García Bernal’s Bahari leaves his London home, and his pregnant wife, for what he thinks will be a routine visit to his hometown, Tehran, to cover the election for Newsweek. He hires a hip young driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), who doesn’t actually have a car — just a shaky little motorbike. But Davood knows all the right people, and through him, Bahari meets a group of idealistic young men who have educated themselves by tapping forbidden TV channels via a wholly illegal garden of satellite dishes perched on a rooftop. (They call this makeshift institute of higher learning “Dish University.”) These guys make it clear they’ll be casting their vote for Mousavi, the challenger to the controversial, bellicose incumbent Ahmadinejad. To them, and to Bahari, it seems perfectly plausible, if not likely, that Mousavi could win a democratic election — provided the election in question is going to be at all democratic.

Meanwhile, Bahari meets with Jones (playing himself) and gives what he assumes is a harmless interview — between takes, he cracks up at the ridiculous obviousness of Jones’s spy shtick. A few days later, it’s not so funny: The election results spark violence, some of which Bahari captures on camera. He at first assumes that’s the reason he’s picked up by government goons, as his mother, played with authoritative gravity by Shohreh Aghdashloo, anxiously looks on. No wonder she’s worried: Both Bahari’s father and sister spent time in prison, during the eras of the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini, respectively. Still, Bahari can’t believe he’ll be held for long, until he realizes that his interrogator, a man known to him only as Rosewater (played by Kim Bodnia), genuinely believes that Newsweek is a spy organization. Bahari is routinely quizzed and beaten. His refusal to cooperate — because how, exactly, is he supposed to respond to these idiots? — lands him in solitary confinement. At one point, he’s led to believe he’s going to be killed.

We all know Stewart is a smart guy who’s good at talking. What’s surprising is how good he is at filmmaking. Stewart — who also adapted the script, from Bahari’s 2011 book, Then They Came for Me — understands that even a story relying largely on dialogue, as this one does, also needs to be cinematic. As Bahari, pre-arrest, walks down a Tehran street, he thinks of his father and sister, both now dead: Bernal recounts their stories in voiceover, and we see their images hazily reflected in the storefront windows he passes, ghosts brought vividly to life. In another sequence, Bernal’s Bahari performs an expressive solo ballet to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” — a song, and an artist, his sister had turned him on to — in his lonely, underfurnished cell. The music, of course, is playing only in his head, but his power to conjure it is key to his survival. The sight of Bernal leaping, twirling, and kicking to the sound of nothing — which is really the sound of everything — is the movie’s glorious visual centerpiece.

Bernal gives a thoughtful, delicately calibrated performance, and he’s funny, too: At the movie’s high point, Bahari outwits his pedantic interrogator in a way that’s pure comedy, so outlandish that you can’t believe it could actually work. But then, Bahari’s captors, blindly devoted to the religious supremacy of the state, aren’t terribly good at thinking for themselves. And it’s in setting the movie’s tone, layer by layer, that Stewart proves most adept. Bahari’s tormentor, endeavoring to get the prisoner to “confess,” sticks to his dumbest ideas with the tenaciousness of an octopus’s sucker. He cites items seized upon Bahari’s arrest — they include a DVD copy of Teorema, which the authorities have deemed “porno,” as well as a Cohen album and a Tintin book — as evidence of the journalist’s lack of moral steadfastness. At one point, the grand inquisitor asks Bahari, in all seriousness, about his affiliation with an individual named Anton Chekhov, whom Bahari has quoted admiringly on his Facebook page.

Rosewater isn’t one of those nicey-nice vehicles that takes pains to remind us that some people are just culturally “different” and thus can’t be held responsible for adhering to warped religious and political dogma. Instead, Stewart puts it pretty plainly: Some people are just idiots, and the stupidity of evil can kill you. Thank God Bahari managed to outsmart it.

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While Relevant, The Muslims Are Coming! Feels More Like a PSA than a Comedy

One part stand-up comedy concert film (think Kings of Comedy) to two parts social outreach activism, documentary The Muslims Are Coming! works somewhat better as the latter than the former. Co-directed by comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the film follows a diverse group of American Muslim comics as they trek across the South (Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee) performing stand-up largely centered on their experiences as Muslims, with their lives in post–9/11 America receiving special emphasis. Pre-show happenings (setting up “Ask a Muslim” booths in public squares, or standing in public areas holding “Hug a Muslim” signs) as well as post-show Q&As are part of the arts activism agenda, as an impressive array of talking heads (from Rachel Maddow and Soledad O’Brien to Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross) address Islamophobia and the function of minority identity in comedy. It’s an inarguably noble undertaking, one that’s unfortunately timely, but the film often feels like a profane PSA. You might wish that the comedians had simply filmed their routines and let those performances do the heavy lifting. But that would require that the material be stronger than the largely middling fare glimpsed in the excerpted shows. At one point, David Cross says that any time he sees a comedy lineup billed as “a night of ‘fill-in-the-blank’ comedy—women’s, gay, Jewish, whatever” he runs in the opposite direction, and the The Muslims Are Coming! inadvertently illustrates why he—or anyone else—might have that response.

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Bill de Blasio Responds to Jon Stewart’s Adoption Plea: “We’d Be Honored”

When the election night broadcast cut to Bill de Blasio’s victory party late Tuesday, some watching from home had the chance to see what could very well be the next first family of New York City in action for the first time.

Daily Show host Jon Stewart, for one, was smitten.

“I think New York City might be ready for a charismatic biracial family with their own signature synchronized dance moves that appear to have been beamed here from their very own 1970s musical variety special,” Stewart said Wednesday evening.

“Adopt me?” he asked.

The question might have just hung in the air, sad and unresolved, but last night Bill de Blasio appeared on MSNBC where Reverend Al Sharpton demanded an answer.

“Will you adopt Jon Stewart?,” he asked the public advocate.

“We’d be honored to have Jon join the family,” de Blasio answered quickly. “That would be great.”

Between de Blasio, the presumed Democratic nominee, and confirmed subway kitten Darwinist Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate, at least New Yorkers can take comfort in the fact that their next mayor will have the resolve to answer the tough questions.

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MAD GENIUS

If you’ve laughed anytime in the past 50 years, you owe Harvey Kurtzman some thanks. Triple-threat Kurtzman (writer, editor, cartoonist) and publisher William Gaines created Mad magazine in 1952, and Kurtzman’s bloody-knuckle satire inspired everyone from R. Crumb to Terry Gilliam to Jon Stewart. Combine that with his evocative and deglamorized depictions of war in Two-Fisted Tales, his mentoring underground cartoonists in HELP! magazine, and the creation of Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, and it’s easy to see why the Society of Illustrators is toasting Kurtzman 
tonight, kicking off a retrospective that runs into May.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.; Saturdays, noon. Starts: March 8. Continues through May 11, 2013

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Jon Stewart on R.A. Dickey: How Will the Mets Screw This Up?

According to R.A. Dickey’s agent, Bo McKinnis, negotiations between his client and the New York Mets are solid in terms of “a series of potential structures and lengths.”

What, then, are the sticking points? Bo says, “We’ve got a difference in terms of the actual dollars per season.”

In other words, the only thing they’ve yet to agree upon is money. Somehow, that reminds me of Steven Wright’s predicament that “I got this powdered water … now I don’t’ know what to add.” Without water, you don’t have water. Without money, you don’t have an agreement.

]
Several sources are claiming that GM Sandy Alderson is “genuinely
conflicted” over whether the Mets should keep or trade Dickey. But
since they haven’t made him an offer — either before or after he won the
National League Cy Young Award — it doesn’t appear that there’s much
conflict there.

The bottom line on what’s going on right now with Dickey and the Mets
was expressed last night on The Daily Show, when Dickey did a guest spot
and rabid Mets fan Jon Stewart asked him, “How will the Mets screw this
up?”

How, indeed. There’s probably a feeling among Mets players, that “Keep
your head down and don’t do too well, cause if you win the Cy Young
award they’re going to trade you on the open market.”

Dickey’s response to Stewart was basically the same thing he’s said it
form the beginning: “Golly, I’m hoping to be here. I love it here,
man.”

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Jon Stewart Dishes on Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy

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PENCIL TALK

“If no one had seen pencils, and it came out today, it would blow everyone’s mind,” the cartoonist and pencil-sharpening mastermind David Rees told us. Rees rose in popularity with his controversial Bush-era comic strip, “Get Your War On,” in Rolling Stone but has recently become an outlier in the artisanal movement. How? By putting something we all take for granted under a microscope: the classic No. 2. With his book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil-Sharpening, Rees is taking his two-year-old “artisanal pencil-sharpening business,” in which he sharpens customers’ pencils on the road for a small fee. And the final stop is in our own backyard. At the tour’s finale in Williamsburg, he will be joined by the writer of the book’s foreword, comedian John Hodgman, best known as the hilariously stoic correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Forget the paper and pen; just bring your pencil to class.

Fri., May 18, 7 p.m., 2012

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MEET YOUR MATCH

Match Game (think Mad Libs for adults) was once one of America’s favorite television game shows—and tonight it’s making a comeback. Match Game ’12, a fundraiser that benefits 826NYC’s writing lab for New York City students, has contestants attempting to guess celebrities’ answers to fill-in-the-blank questions such as “She has the world’s biggest _____ .” But with a celebrity panel made up of comedians Seth Meyers (Saturday Night Live), Jon Benjamin (Funny Guy), Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Jon Glaser (Delocated), and Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), the possibilities for bawdy double entendres are endless.

Thu., March 15, 8 p.m., 2012