Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald told the tale of “the lost generation,” pointing out the cultural shortcomings and personal illusions that made it so. They were the preeminent critics of their time, immortalizing much of what we remember about that era.

Morgan Morel
Imran Syed

Analysts and observers have been appalled at the lack of such clear chroniclers for our MTV generation. But expectations of finding the sharp criticisms of our age in novels ignore the changes in popular media. One entire outlet for critique has been entirely overlooked because it remains misunderstood. Sometimes, it’s easiest to understand what something is by first clarifying what it isn’t, so let’s begin there.

Contrary to popular campus belief, so-called fake news programs like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” are not meant to serve as anyone’s primary source for news. World events, catalogued as they are by a bevy of sources on the airwaves, in print and online, are best covered by only these outlets, boring though they may make them seem. You must have an understanding of political players and situations to appreciate the satire Stewart and Colbert spout – no differently really from the political skits on “Saturday Night Live.”

“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” simply can’t offer that vital context. Despite what thousands of teenagers swear in their Facebook profiles, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are, in fact, failures as primary sources of news. Their brief contact with real events as a platform for humor offer nothing in the way of knowledge – but they certainly aren’t useless. They are perhaps the most unheralded champions of secondary analysis of pop culture, politics and indeed, the state of our society.

For example, let’s take Stewart and Colbert’s joint appearance as presenters at the Emmy Awards in September. In their brief but remarkably perceptive interplay, Stewart acted as his off-screen self while Colbert opted to stay in character. The award they were to introduce was “Outstanding Reality-Competition Program,” and don’t think that’s an accident, either.

Stewart came out and blandly greeted the crowd (“Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here tonight”). Colbert’s greeting was more character-driven, proclaiming, “Good evening, Godless sodomites.”

In what followed, Stewart acted embarrassed at his colleague’s insistence upon staying in character and making colorful pronouncements – exaggerations of the ridiculous rhetoric that dominates present-day political discourse. When asked by Stewart to just read the prompter, Colbert points to his heart and replies, “I’m reading the prompter in here.”

Then follows a clever, compact and stinging indictment of the banality of reality television. Done slyly enough to keep from offending the numerous producers gathered in the theater for Emmy night, their dialogue has an undeniable ring of truth. Stewart (hesitantly reading the official prompter, a look of defeat on his face) says things like, “Reality television celebrates the human condition by illuminating what’s extraordinary in the ordinary person.” In turn, Colbert opines, “It warps the minds of our children and weakens the resolve of our allies.” The theater exploded in sustained laughter throughout the procession, the point impossible to miss.

And in those two short minutes, on one of the most closely monitored stages Hollywood will see all year, Colbert and Stewart did what they, and others of their craft, do best – point out the absurd in a popular facet of popular culture. The preceding banter employed their two main methods: ridiculously overstating the good and the bad to prove what many of us have already come to suspect.

Critics of culture come in all shapes and mediums. The story of this generation may very well be told in literature, but strong, maybe stronger, possibilities lie in film, television and the Internet.

We must remember that much of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s work was overlooked in their own time; indeed, Fitzgerald died despondent, sure that his name would quickly fade into oblivion. And though they are both sometimes hesitantly embraced by the Academy today, the powerful lessons of that lost age glow vibrantly even in third and fourth readings of “The Sun Also Rises” or “Tender is the Night.”

I don’t for a moment pretend that Stewart and Colbert will be immortalized like those two great American authors. But I do wish to stress that the significance of their contributions in our analysis of the events of our age and in making television a viable medium of cultural criticism can’t, and certainly shouldn’t, be denied.

-Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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