Watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do their shows in the midst of the Writers Guild strike is probably one of the most surreal viewing experiences I’ve ever had. And I don’t mean surreal in the way how, if you wait long enough, Hoosiers will eventually air somewhere. No, I’m talking about the bizarre and layered dichotomies of seeing two entertainers take their personas one step further into meta-insanity by pretending to pretend to not acknowledge the ongoing strike. But then, when you stop and realize that the shows are still being carried by a corporate entity doing its best to antagonize the striking writers—the very cause for which Stewart and Colbert seem to be obliquely fighting—well, then the wheels come off the wagon.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report went into reruns on Nov. 5, the first day of the WGA strike, just like all the other late-night talk shows. But faced with growing demand from a likely confused viewing public, the guilt of putting crew members out of work, and the fact that America is nothing without its TV, many of the late-night hosts arranged a return to work at the start of the new year. For Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, this meant no writers, but David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc. company struck an interim deal allowing him to have a writing staff for his show. Leno and O’Brien resorted to riffing on whatever they could to fill time, but Letterman’s return to air was a bitter, blistering attack on the Alliance of Motion Picture&Television Producers, featuring a Top Ten list read by unemployed writers. It seemed the only option for a host was to either make jokes about their lack of staff or help the WGA in its cause; either way, you pretty much had to come out and talk about it.
But Stewart and Colbert only settled for part of that plan. Neither host has the use of a writing staff, so Stewart devoted his first night back on the air to teaching Strike 101 with the kind of deadpan sarcasm he usually reserves for Dick Cheney jokes. It was a weird, rambling monologue, and I doubt Stewart has spent such a large chunk of time on just one topic since 9/11. Colbert, meanwhile, was in a much bigger pile of existential quicksand, since his entire shtick revolves around acting like he doesn’t have writers in the first place. “I think it, I say it,” Colbert has said, and watching him have to tacitly acknowledge his lack of writers while maintaining his blustery persona was, and remains, awkward and uncomfortable. The absence of a staff to supply him with jokes highlighted the odd fact that it takes a lot of smart people to put on a one-man show. This is why it was almost better—or at least more believable—when everything was in reruns. Stewart and Colbert have returned to the air, but at the expense of the strength of the personas, whether sardonic or satirical, that made their shows so great in the first place.
However, the biggest problem with the shows is that, well, they’re still on TV. Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, which is competing with Google for the title of Possible Future Overlord of the World. Coincidentally, Viacom has filed a copyright-infringement suit against Google and YouTube for $1 billion. Even more coincidentally, the fundamental issue at stake in the suit—being paid for one’s work—is what finally broke the talks between the WGA, who wanted its members to be paid when things they’d written were streamed online, and the AMPTP, who thought that was a stupid idea and took their Legos and went home. Stewart and Colbert are doing their best to stand up for their writers, whether it’s Stewart’s wry jokes about writers being used as “promotional cheese” to hawk a company’s product or Colbert’s in-character refusal to listen to the writers’ complaints, which somehow serves to validate them. But the end of every show and all of the commercial breaks in between point the viewer toward ComedyCentral.com or TheDailyShow.com or iTunes, all of which provide clips for consumers to view for free or buy for a small fee. And none of that cash, of course, makes its way to the writers. Stewart and Colbert may be moving their mouths, but they don’t control the strings.
SEE IT: The Daily Show airs at 11 pm Monday-Thursday on Comedy Central. The Colbert Report follows at 11:30 pm.