On “The Daily Show,” comedian Jon Stewart delivers the not-so-fake news at 11 p.m., followed a half-hour later by his “Comedy Central” compatriot Stephen Colbert, who plays a Bill O’Reilly-like conservative commentator for laughs on “The Colbert Report.”
But this past Thursday night, Stewart tried his hand at imitation – mimicking Glenn Beck, blackboard and all, following the right-wing broadcaster’s recent comments calling “social justice” and “economic justice” code words for Nazism and Communism. Beck, on his radio show earlier this month, urged congregants in churches preaching social and economic justice to “run as fast as you can.“
In an extraordinary 13-plus-minute performance, Stewart employed images ranging from the Swastika to the Hammer and Sickle to Jesus to a certain denizen of Sesame Street, while spouting a flood of conspiracy theories that flowed along with Beck-like crocodile tears.
The out-of-character bit, complete with manic chalk circling and pandering illogical leaps along the spectrum of history and politics, proved alternately hilarious and chilling – probably because it wasn’t so far off from an actual Beck rant on the evils of progressivism.
“I’m sorry – I promised myself I would cry,” said Stewart in his Beck guise, glasses in hand and arms waving.
So did Stewart give Beck a lesson – or was he just teaching to the converted?
It’s hard to know how the edgy segment played to different audiences. Maybe Stewart's performance will gain Beck some sympathy from the right, at a time when the Fox host’s church-fleeing talk might have harmed him with some Christian supporters. Maybe Stewart did a service by exposing Beck’s ongoing absurdity to a potentially wider audience by devoting half his show to the imitation – a move that’s gained Thursday night’s show far more notice online and in the press than an average “Daily Show” installment.
But possible breadth of reactions shouldn't be Stewart’s main concern. His job as a media and political satirist is to make us think by making us laugh. Stewart’s primary weapon is words – and he’s most compelled to react when the language is being twisted.
It’s hard to not hear echoes of “1984” when Beck likens social and economic justice to Nazism and Communism, and calls the teaching of the importance of helping the poor “a perversion of the Gospel.”
Beck and his conservative brethren know very well from code words. During the 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush noted Michael Dukakis was a “card carrying member of the ACLU,” with the same derision Joseph McCarthy saved for communists. Twenty years later, Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama’s past as a “community organizer” as if that job title were somehow nefarious (news flash for Tea Baggers: Samuel Adams was a “community organizer”).
Beck’s latest ludicrous episode makes O’Reilly – known as Papa Bear to Colbert – look like a pussycat. And on Thursday night, it was Colbert’s O’Reilly-like character who proved the subtler member of the “Comedy Central” news tag team.
Colbert offered his own, more nuanced take-down of Beck for what the comedian, who is Catholic, clearly saw as a direct attack on his religion's teachings about social justice.
Colbert’s character suggested that Beck, who name has been floated for high office, could be the next Pope, adding, “He certainly seems comfortable with telling Catholics what to do.”
Check out Stewart and Colbert’s different approaches to battling Beck with humor below:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice - James Martin|
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.