Does the 'Daily Show' Satire Cross the Line?


From Comedy Central’s world news headquarters in New York, it’s the Daily Show with Jon Stewart!

As of Monday, Jon Stewart was no longer sitting at the daily news desk since he’s in the Middle East directing his first movie; instead we got the lovable Briton, John Oliver, whose first show was well-done and surprisingly refreshing I thought. The Daily Show has been a staple of late night television for the past seventeen years and even more, has actually become a respectable news agent with Jon Stewart winning several awards for his journalism (18 Emmys). Often, the Daily Show satire is smart and informed, suavely making its point while keeping us all in stitches. However, occasionally I twinge with intense discomfort during some of its special correspondent moments.

It’s not so surprising that two of The Office actors (Steve Carrell, Ed Helms) came from their time on the Daily Show; it’s not uncommon for the humor to have that same awkward, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he just said that” feeling. And for the most part, that’s OK; Good satire is intentionally uncomfortable as a way to expose hypocrisy and problematic ideologies. As such, the Daily Show has done a lot of pieces with absolutely brilliant satire: Aasif Mandvi’s piece about the state of Florida drug testing welfare applicants, John Oliver’s three-part piece on the effectiveness of Australian Gun Control, and Samantha Bee’s hilarious piece about abortion on the 2012 Republican platform (which highlighted some pretty incredible incongruities and hypocrisy).

However, more than once I’ve watched the show and felt that maybe it took things too far. Satire should make us feel a little uncomfortable, we’ve established that, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t become a tool to just belittle others or differing beliefs. Consider this piece (which is actually the one that inspired Jon Stewart to develop Rosewater), are some of his interactions with the subject’s family rude? What about having the translator translate everything the writer says in English into English and pretending that both men are too stupid to speak well?

Or this piece on the debate over birth control and the “panel” of older men that was called on to discuss the issue? A piece that actually did draw some controversy from feminists and political commentators. During this particular Daily Show correspondent's piece, Jason Jones treats the female panelists disrespectfully, by really allowing no one to ever say anything (which was obviously the point, but at the end, I expected there to be at least a moment where a few of the female perspectives could have been heard). Or this recent piece with Jessica Williams about Utah state legislator Stephen Sandstrom, whose entire political belief system is mocked as is his intelligence?

Perhaps each of these situations is just a brilliant example of satire, or perhaps these are examples of times when the Daily Show has crossed the line between good humor and over into “I’m way more of a jerk than the situation calls for right now.”

This might not be just a Daily Show problem, many comedians have come under fire recently for saying inappropriate jokes, most notably, Daniel Tosh and the rape joke debate of 2013 (2012). Many comedians and bloggers argued however, that Tosh was just doing what good comedy does, exposing an unfortunate part of life to possibly change society by using something that was uncomfortable.

But there are boundaries; we make them as a way to ensure that people are able to maintain their dignity. Should comedians be given a free pass to blow by those boundaries? Is satire one of those times?

What do you think? Have there ever been moments when the Daily Show has stopped being smart satire and has become inappropriate?