Fox News puts Jon Stewart on the spot

The Daily Show host had a tougher time than normal when he appeared on Fox News on Sunday.

The host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, went onto Fox News Sunday last night. This, in itself, isn't really big news. Stewart regularly appears on the network and exchanges matey banter with the sometimes insane Bill O'Reilly. The formula is pretty standard whenever Stewart goes into enemy territory. The Fox News host accuses him of being the doyen of mainstream liberal bias, before Stewart declares: "Hey, I'm a comedian! Don't take me seriously."

This time, however, was a little different. Jon Stewart reeled out the same lines as usual (he's a comedian working on a comedy show, not a news anchor on a news show, etc. etc.) but Wallace was ready for them, pointing to a Baltimore Sun critic who recently wrote: "When [Stewart] is wrong, he goes into the tap dance of saying he's only a comedian and shouldn't be taken seriously."

This stumped Stewart momentarily. A raw nerve touched, Wallace dug his finger in a little deeper. "Honestly, I think you want to be a political player," said Wallace with a smirk.

Rather than laugh it off - like a comedian - Stewart seemed riled. "You're wrong. You are wrong," he replied sternly. Wallace then continued to poke, arguing that Fox was simply an antidote to mainstream liberal bias. This seemed to get to Stewart, who shot back, rather too forcefully: "Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers. Consistently, every poll."

Wallace then ruined what threatened to be an interesting debate by pointing to a clip of a "comedy roast" skit broadcast elsewhere on Stewart's network and a joke involving Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's penis, which rather let the Daily Show host off the hook. "It's not exactly masterpiece theatre," argued Wallace. "You're the counterbalance to that. I'm suggesting that there is bias and you only tell part of the story." (Presumably because the joke focussed only on their sex video, rather than the break-up of their ill-fated marriage.)

Before this, however, the interview highlighted Stewart's awkward, and rather unique, position in the US media. Stewart might not want to be seen as a politcal player or a news anchor, but his comedy makes him so. His comedy is ideological and political - and that is why it's good. But the form it takes - a mock news show, that reacts to current affairs - blurs the lines between journalism and comedy. Likewise, events such as last year's "Rally for Sanity" cloud the issue further. The "I'm a comedian" defence is getting old. He is a part of US news culture, whether he wants to be or not. The Daily Show is infotainment with great jokes. The sooner Stewart accepts that, and stops relying on the comedian defence, the better.

UPDATE: I refine my views on Stewart and this interview in this piece here. Feel free to continue the kicking on a new thread.

BBC/YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.