Notes on The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests (2016) by Chris Smith

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgJust a couple of issues ago, in the pages of the Oral History Review, Troy Reeves offered an exacting appraisal of Chris Smith’s New York Times bestseller The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests (2016). While I presume it will not shock readers to learn that this write-up in the “U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history” hammers away at the fact that Smith’s book “does not stand up as a work of oral history according to the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices,” its closing might come as something of a surprising provocation. In it, Reeves writes:

What are the boundaries between traditional oral history and popular culture? Can they ever overlap? What are the minimum components that make oral history legitimate? Do those of us who call ourselves oral historians have exclusive rights over the term? Does the popularization of oral history enhance or debase the field that we hold dear?

While I enjoyed the book through my acolyte (or loyal follower) lens, I cannot consider it oral history. Nowhere within the pages will interested oral historians see mention of methodology, recording medium, full transcription, or archival location, four main principles that separate our work from journalism or reportage. So, as one might imagine, anyone looking for oral history insight should look elsewhere. And that is my moment of Zen.

To be clear, I think it is quite useful indeed to draw distinctions between more traditional/OHA-compliant oral history projects and things like The Daily Show (The Book), just as Reeves does here. This is not because I’m worried that not doing so would foster confusion — I’m doubtful that the two are erroneously conflated very often (or really at all) — but because I think we should talk much more about (and celebrate) the many different types of oral historical work.

One of those types is certainly what has been called “oral history as journalism” — or, work that presents a single story pieced together out of snippets from a wide-ranging collection of interviews. I discussed this approach a bit in my last post, and The Daily Show (The Book) is a word-perfect example of it. Smith follows the well-established template for “oral history as journalism” that has been set by many other books, including Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live (2002), which very similarly gathers together on- and off-camera voices from Saturday Night Live‘s now nearly fifty-year history. So the comparison to journalism isn’t exactly off-beam either.

Where I do think the review goes too far is with its suggestion that if a work neither discusses “methodology, recording medium, full transcription, or archival location” nor explicitly follows the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices, then it “cannot [be considered] oral history.” Obviously, as someone with a scholarly interest in what we could call the “oral historical mode” within the documentary arts, this rubs me the wrong way. Furthermore, such a notion ignores arguments for a more inclusive outlook that have come from within the field of oral history itself. For example, in my post about Studs Terkel’s “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984), I include a snippet from Alessando Portelli’s essay “Oral History as Genre.” The passage, which is contained in the great historian’s 1997 book The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue, definitely applies here as well (pg. 18-19):

Speaking to specialists implies the use of a more rigorously technical language (including bibliographies, footnotes, etc.); speaking to the community or to the general public requires a more pointed effort toward communication; the former will be more interpretive, the latter more narrative. Ironically, the originary orality of the sources tends to be retained much more extensively in works not intended primarily for a scholarly audience.

Speaking to the community, or targeting a broad, nonacademic audience, then, does not necessarily subtract from the quality of the work. One of the things that makes oral history different is its democratic potential, which can make an oral history project academically relevant at the same time that it is accessible to the general public, not only through readable books, but also through community projects, exhibits…film, video, the theater. Rhetorical strategies vary significantly, however.

As a mass market title that tells the story of the eponymous and enormously popular “fake news” program, The Daily Show (The Book) necessarily requires a “rhetorical strategy” that speaks to “the general public” and not just “specialists” within the field of oral history. This might at least partially explain why “nowhere within the [book’s] pages will interested oral historians see mention of methodology, recording medium, full transcription, or archival location,” among other things.

As I’ve also mentioned before, the Oral History Association notes that its membership represents “various [academic] disciplines” and includes those from “both inside and outside the academy.” Essential texts such as Ronald Grele’s Envelopes of Sounds: The Art of Oral History (1991); David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum’s Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (1996); Donna M. DeBlasio, Charles F. Ganzert, David H. Mould, Stephen H. Paschen, and Howard L. Sacks’s Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History (2009); and Elizabeth Miller, Edward Little, and Steven High’s Going Public: The Art of Participatory Practice (2018) also underscore this by including editors and/or contributors who come from a wide variety of disciplines. As such, I think we all need to make a special effort to receive things like The Daily Show (The Book) in good faith, taking care not to be too dismissive of them for not being what they never set out to be in the first place.

All of that said, I do have my own criticisms of Smith’s book, though these have more to do with its content than its form. I also agree strongly with one of Reeves’s major critiques — but more on that later.

First, though, I do want to saw a few things about what I think The Daily Show (The Book) does well. At its very best, Smith’s book — which is much more an oral history of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999 – 2015) than it is an oral history of either The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn (1996 – 1998) or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (2015 – the present) — fills in knowledge gaps about the epochal news satire. Sometimes it does this by simply allowing its many narrators to reminisce and really dig in on points in the show’s history that generated a lot of conversation, publicity, and/or gossip. The sheer range of voices heard from on things like the formation of The Daily Show‘s writers union, Stewart’s full-court press on behalf of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, or the much-discussed dustup between Stewart and writer/correspondent Wyatt Cenac, for instance, is remarkable, and adds depth to our understanding of these and other red-letter moments.

Other times, it fills in those knowledge gaps with what we might call “shoptalk” or “inside baseball” stuff. For instance, prior to reading the book, I hadn’t been aware of SnapStream, a company specializing in TV monitoring software. Interviews about The Daily Show‘s collaboration with them to develop tools for monitoring the many news shows the program draws from illuminate just how much work went into simply gathering clips before 2010. “It absolutely changed the way we produce,” supervising producer Pat King tells Smith. “It could take hours to find the clips we wanted, and then it used to take ten or twelve minutes to get a clip into an Avid editor. SnapStream cut our production time down by about 60 or 70 percent.” Executive in charge of production Jill Katz adds: “It turned out to be an incredibly expensive investment, but I really saw this as a way of changing everything that we do and reducing so much of the legwork so we could spend more time being creative” (pg. 260). (As Smith seems to indicate, it’s probably not a coincidence, then, that “experiments” like Stewart and partner-in-crime Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” happened shortly thereafter.)

In addition, the narrators are well-drawn by Smith from the transcripts. As both the show’s leader and primary on-air talent, Stewart comes across the same intelligent, funny, self-effacing presence he does on TV, but also cuts an appropriately complicated and complex figure. Among others, executive producers Rory Albanese and Jen Flanz also emerge as particularly compelling “characters,” due in no small part to the evolution of both their professional roles on the show and personal relationship to one another.

But despite these strengths, The Daily Show (The Book) often feels like something of a vanity project — an opportunity for Stewart, his colleagues, and others to take a victory lap without having to do much in the way of sober, critical reflection.

Consider the ten pages devoted to the aforementioned “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” — the Washington, D.C., rally that Smith explains as “a plea for rationality in an increasingly irrational political and media landscape” (pg. 261). Though we hear about the staff’s initial misgivings, and a tiny bit about the subsequent criticism, the whole event is essentially looked at through rose-tinted glasses. Smith himself even writes that “[Stewart] and Colbert were an excellent fit for the jittery moment in American politics — a moment very much in need of a few laughs and a dose of civility,” and characterizes Stewart’s closing speech as “a welcome, hopeful appeal to Americans’ better nature, and a borderline-prophetic warning that things could get worse if sanity didn’t make a stand” (pg. 265; 268).

In reality, though, there were quite a few of us at the time who felt — and still feel — that the rally was recklessly wrong-headed, and its underlying thesis bunk. Indeed, as Alex Shepard put it in a recent look back at the event for the New Republic:

…From our darker vantage point, what really sticks out is Stewart’s denialism. The backlash to Obama was a terrifying expression of the anxieties — both racial and otherwise — gripping America’s increasingly unhinged conservatives. Bill Maher, of all people, got this. ‘When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the right who believe Obama’s a socialist and people on the left who believe 9/11’s an inside job,’ Maher said on his show. ‘But I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11’s an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama’s a socialist? All of them.’

This kind of thinking was not limited to Stewart and Colbert or the people holding signs about how political moderation is sexy. It was shared by Democratic leadership, most prominently by Obama himself, who spent the first precious years of his administration mistakenly convinced that he could find common ground with the right. The myth of unity remains a trope in much of the legacy media, while at least two leading candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary are selling themselves as uniters, not dividers.

The idea that the left has enemies who must be roundly defeated remains too gauche for many Democrats. That disdain for political combat is all on display at the Rally to Restore Sanity, but coated with smug condescension: It’s elaborate political theater that nominally appeals to better angels but really signals that liberals are smarter and gentler than conservatives and that, deep down, the rest of the country agrees with them.

That it came from Stewart and Colbert, who were otherwise in the midst of a decade-long hot streak, should have been the real warning. Facing growing right-wing hostility, the best they could offer was patting the backs of 200,000 people who probably would have been better off knocking on doors.

But none of the narrators meaningfully contend with critiques of this sort, and the only criticism that isn’t glibly brushed aside is Salman Rushdie’s complaint that one of the featured musical performers, Yusuf Islam, “had endorsed the fatwa against [him]” (pg. 269).

Smith seems similarly disinterested in interrogating The Daily Show‘s rather queasy “frenemies” status with partisans from across the political divide, including especially the late Senator John McCain. In fact, both he and his widow Cindy are narrators in The Daily Show (The Book). Though the highs and lows of his and the show’s relationship are all recounted by the narrators, their mutual cordiality is never really in doubt — McCain himself boils any perception of fractiousness down to “one bad interview I had with Jon” (pg. 293). One might well ask, then: how biting and/or effective a satire was The Daily Show really if it was able to maintain such a chummy rapport with one of its targets?

In addition, such cutesy media relationships betray what Nima Shirazi and Adam H. Johnson have called “liberals’ obsession with the phantom reasonable Republican,” which is certainly something that has played a role in pulling the political center more and more to the right. Considering that a trusted source of liberal “info-tainment” like The Daily Show tacitly signed off on John McCain — who, among many other sins, cheerled the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; voted to “deprive millions of access to health insurance”; unrepentently used a racist epithet; chose Sarah Palin as his running mate; and callously called for the bombing of Iran — is it really that much of a surprise that we eventually wound up with Donald Trump in the White House? That seems like a question worth asking.

But even those criticisms that might present opportunities for Stewart and company to more easily and constructively fall on their swords — such as the persistent call-outs of The Daily Show (and The Colbert Report) for transphobic (and atypically mean-spirited) jokes — go undiscussed. The only faultfinding here is that which comes from within the inner circle; if there were attempts to cut through the narrators’ groupthink and mythologizing, it’s not apparent in the text. The show’s co-creator and former executive producer Madeleine Smithberg feels the most like a wild card here, expressing opinions that are often out-of-step with the rest, but no one seems caught off-guard by anything she has to say either.

Ultimately, I think Reeves is exactly right when he suggests that The Daily Show (The Book) exists principally to “evoke nostalgia”; it’s a work of “oral history as journalism” designed to give fans of the show the warm fuzzies. If that’s what you’re after, there’s a very high probability that you will love Smith’s book. But if you’re looking to read an unsentimental and unsparing document of the program and its cultural impact, you will want to wait for another book, a significantly revised new edition, or a companion volume.

And that — with apologies to Messrs. Stewart and Reeves — is my moment of Zen.

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based oral historian whose most recent work is the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), a digital storytelling initiative inspired by his partner Stephanie Lyn and her family. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and is currently a contract lecturer in that program.
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