The Daily Woe

About a week ago, I watched in equal parts abject horror and morbid curiousity as the integrity of The Daily Show was called into question by the folks over at Jezebel. In case you've had your head shoved up a Tampax box for the past few days, the story - though relying on the ever-questionable tactics of interviews with anonymous sources and former employees - basically alleges that Comedy Central's ratings powerhouse, though a supposed bastian of progressivism and liberal ideology, is in fact guilty of the same institutionalized sexism it claims to abhor.

The Daily Show is many things: progressive darling, alleged news source for America's youth, righteous media critique. And it's also a boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed.

The opening really says it all, but I would encourage you to keep reading. What's presented here by Irin is pretty damning.

Of course, not wanting to be seen as punching bags (neither by Jezebel or their corporate bosses), the current ladies of The Daily Show issued a rebuttal argument to the piece, setting a snide, rather snarky tone by opening with "Dear People Who Don't Work Here."

Recently, certain media outlets have attempted to tell us what it's like to be a woman at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We must admit it is entertaining to be the subjects of such a vivid and dramatic narrative. However, while rampant sexism at a well-respected show makes for a great story, we want to make something very clear: the place you may have read about is not our office.

(By the way, anyone else notice how the PR-friendly photo taken here bears some frightening resemblance to those creepy fundamentalist Mormom family photos? The only thing missing is Jon in the center, grinning like a self-righteous idiot.)

 

First of all, for the sake of the women who do work on the show, I hope that the rebuttal is a legit expression of their perceived experience at The Daily Show. But I have a very nagging feeling that this is nothing more than a bit of protracted PR from Viacom, the company that owns Comedy Central, in a desperate attempt to refute the buzz created by the Jezebel story. (And perhaps this is symptomatic of having come-of-age in the Clinton era, but I can't help but view any immediate defensive gesture as a precursor to an embarrassing public emission. See also: John Edwards, Al Gore...?)

From both the ladies of The Daily Show and a litany of other sources, critical of the original Jezebel piece, the main line of attack seems to be that the interviewees quoted with attacking the show are disgruntled, bitter, angry ex-employees with an axe to grind against the program that quickly made and then broke them. There is certainly some merit to this posit, and the motivating factors behind these individuals' decision to lambast the show in a public forum (with or without their names attached to the damaging quotes in question) must be given equal consideration to the piece's ultimate thesis statement.

However, this argument is really unwinable, because, as Huffington Post Comedy points out, "The response from the women of the "Daily Show" reads as earnest and heartfelt, but if one of these women did feel the environment was hostile, it would be difficult for them to speak up without jeopardizing their career." While sources for the Jezebel piece do indeed speak from a place of bias, so too do the women of The Daily Show, who, inarguably, have a vested interest in making their current employers look good in the face of criticism.

(The blog Tigerbeat Down has a pretty hilarious take: "We have never experienced sexism at the hands of Jon Stewart that we are willing to write about in this public letter meant to rehabilitate the reputation of the show we are currently employed by, which is run by Jon Stewart.")

That being said, I think what bothers me the most about this issue - and the rebuttal in specific - is that I don't really see trotting all the women who work there out for a huge photo-op is any more definitive proof of The Daily Show being a fem-friendly environment than turning the camera on any minority in the audience at the RNC is proof of the Republican Party being a big tent. Sure, they have women on staff, but this does not a fair playing field make. For as much fire Jezebel has come under for their original piece, they do make some pretty valid - and factually indisputable - points about The Daily Show's cavalcade of former female correspondents. (Like that there hasn't been a new female correspondent in seven years, and the high-ranking women past employed by the show have found their careers and opportunities rather fleeting.) As my friend Erin pointed out, there's virtually no culpability to be found amongst this narrative - never once do the ladies (or the company they speak for) cop to any sort of wrongdoing or questionable conduct. Indeed, I might have liked this letter a bit better if they had approached it more from the stance of "yes, women in late night comedy often get the shitty end of the stick, but we're working on it, alright! And in fact, here's how."

But ah, the women. Does anyone remember the short tenures of Lauren Weedman? Miriam Tolan? Stacy Grenrock-Woods? How about Nancy Walls, whose fade into obscurity has rendered her little more than a current brood mare for another - and significantly more successful - Daily Show alumnus: Steve Carell. Meanwhile, past correspondents like Ed Helms, Rob Corrdry, and the aforementioned Carell have skyrocketed to comedic (and financial) superstardom with hugely successful ventures like NBC's The Office and last year's summer blockbuster The Hangover. As for the ladies... well, I think I saw Lauren Weedman on an episode of Hung a while back.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this is probably due to institutionalized sexism that prevails throughout the whole of the entertainment industry, and is hardly unique to The Daily Show or, indeed, late-night comedy in general. Similarly, also, one could probably turn up a number of male former employees willing to lob spitballs at The Daily Show - a fact which hardly suggests a bent toward institutionalized discrimination against males working in that environment. Yet, the evidence of the show's ability to churn out male superstars (including the show's host itself) while failing to do the same for any of its female alumni speaks volumes about the underlying committment to gender equality in that particular workplace.

But back to the rebuttal. (And I hope no one's getting perturbed by my gratitious use of the word "but(t)" in this piece.) I rather dislike the snide, holier-than-thou tone adopted by the letter's authors (or perhaps author, as the case may warrant). While I'm hardly rooting for an abusive atmosphere to be proven without question at the show, the fact that this entity felt the need to not only refute the claims of Jezebel but to gloss over the whole question of equality in comedy in general is significant. And certainly, the stance taken on those who were quoted in the original story speaks volumes about the integrity at play here. It seems like a classic move: refute the claims of the protestor, and then detract their credibility with character assassinations. (Yes, phrases like "the bitter rantings of ex-employees" and "Thanks to the male writers who penned this for us" are less funny than they are catty.)

The essential thesis of the letter can be summed up thusly: if they say that it's a great place to work, then all they need to do is splash a colorful photo and a snarky diatribe up on their official website and it is so. Throw in some healthy discrediting for the little guys asking the big questions, and alls well that ends well. Effectively, what the writers of this letter have done is cut off the conversation about women in comedy - the discussion intended to be promoted by the Jezebel piece. (Albeit, perhaps not initiated in the most constructive manner possible.) As Salon's Broadsheet rightly points out, the ladies may emerge triumphant in the face of this scandal, but they are also shrugging off what is a legitimate (and well documented) problem that persists in modern society. Apparently, the problem that has no name isn't really in need of one, anyway.

Then, there's the issue of Olivia Munn to address. In fact, she's the one who started all this flap in the first place. Well, not really her so much as the people that hired her - and they did so over what's perceived to be a number of worthier, funnier, more talented, and, yes, female candidates. As this issue began to unfold, I made it a point to check out some of Munn's resumed clips online before passing judgement. And I have to say... she's really not that funny. Sorry guys. She just isn't. True enough, comedy is subjective, but Munn's delivery is flat, uninspired, and heavily reliant on outrageous, sexually-charged antics.

Some people are bent on the idea that feminists are getting their panties (granny-panties, naturally. No period stains, though, since everybody knows feminists can't bleed through their secret penises) up in a bunch over what is essentially a nonissue. What's the problem? they say. You wanted more women, so here's another one. You're just pissed because she's hot. (Never mind that this type of sentiment is intellectually insulting. Yes, a woman, any old - no, wait, YOUNG! - woman will do!)

Well, my problem with her isn't that she's hot - it's that she's not funny. It begs the question as to why someone more known for fellating hot dogs on camera than for serious comedy chops would be chosen to fill a coveted role that perhaps hundreds of qualified female candidates would have been much more deserving of.

After all, all of the men on TDS have some sort of serious comedy history; either working their way up as stand-ups (like Stewart himself) or through the cutthroat improv scene. And I'd love to see the day when Lewis Black poses for Playgirl. (No, seriously. I'd probably get that shit framed.) Her hiring rings hauntingly familiar of the whole McCain/Palin fiasco, in which the man called Maverick faced heavy criticism for having selected a questionably qualified candidate as his running mate when, if he wanted a female, several other, much more appropriate choices - like Senators Olympia Snowe or Kay Bailey Hutchison - might have stood as better options. 

And... I suppose I've probably long since worn out my welcome in the blogosphere in regards to this debate. Although, this by no means indicates the issue itself is worn out, or unworthy of further discussion. Sayeth the HuffPo: "While it is always hard to see these issues clearly from the outside, continued scrutiny of the "Daily Show"'s public face is worth our time, considering the show has become a bastion for truth and a champion of the underdog." Amen. Hope you've enjoyed my moment of joyless rage.

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