The Role of The Daily Show in Speaking Truth to Power

Jon Stewart and Barack Obama

On the November 5th, the day after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Jon Stewart asked his audience on The Daily Show “How are we gonna make this shit funny?”  Stewart stepped into the role of host of the show in 1999, the tail end of the Clinton administration, but for the past 8 years, he has come into his own as a satirist, media critic and political commentator, largely due to his skill at poking fun at, and poking holes through, the often-absurd policies of the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. While Jon Stewart has himself stated that The Daily Show doesn’t represent the left or right, but “the distracted center” (Jones 114), it can hardly be denied that for the past 8 years, Republicans have given Stewart and his writers a wealth of material on which, it could be argued, the success of the show has been built.  With a liberal democrat now in the White House, will Stewart and his writers modify their tactics in order to maintain the reputation and status they have gained as our culture’s scathingly honest purveyors of political critique?

Before attempting to answer this question, I will first examine the rise of new political late night television, especially The Daily Show, and its role in providing a public mouthpiece that speaks “truth to power”.  I will then look closely at how it accomplishes this through the use of parody as tool of political and social critique.  My aim is to show that it has been well established that The Daily Show speaks truth to power before presenting my research, which will examine whether and how this may have changed since the inauguration of Barack Obama.New political talk as a mouthpiece for truth

In order to understand the ways in which The Daily Show speaks “truth to power”, it’s important to look closely at how parody as a tool of social and political critique has become a mainstay of political entertainment on television.   In his book, Entertaining Politics, Jeffrey Jones explains that the rise of what he calls “new political television” (Jones 5) began as a populist movement in the 1980’s, and was largely inspired by Ronald Reagan who positioned himself as an everyman, an “outsider” to the Washington establishment (40). Assisted by the rapid development of new media technologies, in addition to fierce competition among cable networks for audience share, a new style of entertainment soon proliferated such as call-in talk radio and political talk networks on cable TV – many of which positioned themselves as speaking with and for a voice that existed outside the establishment.  This new entertainment had a profound effect on politics, particularly in the 1992 election with Ross Perot positioning himself as a political outsider (Jones 40-42), and Bill Clinton appearing on late night talk shows to bolster his populist appeal.  The new types of entertainment eventually evolved into late night political satire / talk shows, beginning with Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central, and Dennis Miller Live on HBO (Jones 43).  Jones argues that this type of programming provided exactly what was missing from contemporary politics – a voice that is honest and real, and that, through its use of satire and parody, speaks truth to power (6).

One of the ways that Jones claims these new political talk shows speak truth to power is as a forum where voices of ordinary people can be heard, and where the average citizen is better represented than he is in the political arena (11).  This is consistent with Liesbet Van Zoonen’s notion that the melding of politics and entertainment is a result of our culture’s crisis of representation, a phenomenon similar to what America experienced in the 1960’s with culturally and politically under-represented groups such as homosexuals, minorities and women making their voices heard.   Today, Van Zoonen maintains, our politicians are so internally focused on consensus among other politicians and Washington insiders that the voices of the people they are supposed to represent are not heard. This crisis may be exacerbated by the fact that politics today is such a specialized field requiring special education and socialization, something that most citizens are not able to relate to.  That politicians must distinguish themselves as dissimilar to others in order to stand out in a crowded political landscape further adds to the problem.  She argues that the way we “revolt” against this type of stranglehold politicians have on politics is not only through apathy and anti-political attitudes, but also through cynicism, jokes, and satire  (Van Zoonen 4-7).

The view that the function of satire is not only to say what may otherwise go unsaid, but to say it for a public who may otherwise go unheard is shared by Megan Boler who argues that Stewart’s influence as a representative of an unheard populace extends beyond The Daily Show, citing the example of his appearance on the CNN talk show, Crossfire on October 15, 2004.  As a guest on this program, Stewart dropped his comic persona and critiqued the show’s hosts directly, accusing them of “hurting America” through “partisan hackery.”  Through analysis of online discussion occurring after this broadcast, Boler found that “thousands of viewers [were] keenly grateful that Jon Stewart had the status and authority to represent the ‘average citizen’ and broadcast their views.”

Parody, clowns and kings

The main way that The Daily Show speaks truth to power is through parody and satire – setting itself up as a “fake news” show.  As such, it adopts the style and rhetoric of the genre of commercial news, but uses the style to poke fun at not just the genre of television journalism, but also the political leaders that the genre supposedly brings us the “facts” about.   What makes parody a more effective method for speaking truth to power and expressing discontentment than other genres of comedy?  Jones defines parody as a technique that speaks with two distinct voices, that of the parodist and that of the object being ridiculed.   The former speaks with a “higher semantic authority” because its is the voice of reason, one that appeals to our common sense (Jones 130).   In Jones’ analysis, parody is a dialogue between these two voices, where the voice of the parodist questions the sense and validity of the voice of the original (128-138).  Geoffrey Baym agrees with this analysis, stating that while contemporary television news tends to be a monologue, it is the dialogue inherent to parody that allows The Daily Show to turn the conventions of media and politics upside down, resulting in a “subjective interrogation” of power (Baym 265) and exposing a greater “truth” than can be gotten from the monologue of straight news.  This, Baym claims, is the predominant method of what he calls “discursive integration” – i.e. the new genre of political talk characterized by a “fluidity of content” between news and entertainment (262)– and is the primary strategy of The Daily Show.  It is precisely through this dialogue, Baym contends, that the show literally speaks truth to power, using satire to hold our media and our political leaders accountable to both their words and actions (267).

While one of the main targets of The Daily Show‘s parody is the media, Jones points out that the harsh criticism of our public leaders also plays a major role (Jones 126). He has likened Jon Stewart’s role as host of the show to that of a “court jester” who sits in a corner and simply points out the failings of our leaders and lets the absurdity speak for itself.   This role was crystallized, Jones argues, after the events of 9/11 when the media went overboard with visual spectacle and the Bush administration instituted inane policy and employed tactics that could easily be described as surreal (107-108).   This concept of the “wise fool”, Jones points out, is centuries old, citing King Lear as a popular example. Traditionally the “wise fool” has always been the one who is able to talk back to power with immunity, and Jones argues that the new breed of political comedians (and Stewart in particular) now fulfills that role in our culture (93).   He contends that The Daily Show can ridicule power because, like the jester or the fool, it is what is expected and therefore doesn’t suffer the same kinds of persecution that a more serious show might.  “The court jester recognizes his special license to speak,” he says “and understands that he will probably keep his head when others will roll” (116).  In fact, William Willeford’s examination of the role of the fool in history finds that it is just such tolerance of the fool by the king that affirms the royal power at which the jester pokes fun.  This type of rebellion was even encouraged by royalty because its permissibility reinforced the notion that the king was strong enough to tolerate it. (Willeford 155).  If Stewart fulfills the role of jester in our society, this historical precedent may illuminate a reason that he is able to speak truth to power without fear of persecution.

In his exploration of the role of parody in creating a public sphere, Jonathan Gray also employs the metaphor of the fool. He argues that the genre of television news is in “dire need of fools”, for the simple reason that if that genre can successfully win our trust, then, as we would a king, we grant it a great deal power over our imaginations (Gray 97-98).  He claims that it is always the genres that claim to have “the truth” (i.e. advertising and television news) that provoke the weapons of the fool – parody and satire (98).   Parody, he claims, challenges Habermas’ notion that the public sphere must always be entirely rational.  Parody and humor use a more absurd type of logic and are the realm of the irrational – but can often be used to empower the public sphere by inspiring rational thought (Gray 104).  Gray’s model of parody speaking truth to power is the animated TV comedy, The Simpsons, which uses parody to deconstruct the genre of TV news.  Gray demonstrates how, through parody, The Simpsons exposes the rhetorical and editorial failings of the news media, along with their over-the-top production values and pandering attitudes toward owners and advertisers (99-101).

Amber Day, in her recent article on The Daily Show, argues that Jon Stewart is not simply a “joker on the sidelines,” but someone whose work affects political discourse through its function as political speech (Day 98).  She agrees with Jones that the parodic technique is utilized skillfully by Stewart and his writers to interrogate power, and adds that these techniques often reveal an even deeper understanding of the issues than do the mainstream news sources (89).  She cites a particular broadcast on which Stewart juxtaposes 2 clips of Vice President Dick Cheney – one of the Vice President emphatically denying he ever made a certain statement, immediately followed by a clip of Cheney making the very statement he denied giving.  In this way, The Daily Show varies from its use of parody as a method of speaking truth to power, and instead uses pure juxtaposition to expose official lies, which then become part of the political record and add to the public debate. (91-92).  In this example, the technique results in not only a critique of the politician, but of the media that – although they certainly had access – refused to show the two clips together.

Finally, one important point made by Gray is that a defining characteristic of parody is the setting up of what he calls “outside” and “inside” positions. The “inside” position is one of comfort– the common sense voiced by the parodist. The “outside” is that which is ridiculed – the king who, through the logic of the jester, becomes the fool.   Gray points out that this technique of creating outsides and insides allows humor to become a potent tool for speaking truth to power, because it exposes the “rational” (i.e. the news media, and those in power) as irrational (Gray 106-107).  Jones also explores the idea of outsides and insides, but applies the metaphor to the players themselves.  Throughout his book, Jones speaks of politicians, news media, and pundits as being political insiders, and the hosts of new political talk and their guests as providing the voice of the “outsider”, or the common man.   Thus, in setting up alternative outsides/insides through parody, what these comedians achieve is the turning of this paradigm inside out, allowing common sense to become the insider and political insiders are cast out.  In the 2008 election Barack Obama positioned himself, as did Reagan 28 years before him, as a Washington outsider, a candidate for change.  For 8 years, The Daily Show and Jon Stewart in particular, also positioned themselves as outsiders, shooting proverbial spitballs at the Republican leaders.  Now that Obama is himself the establishment, does this mean that Stewart will be as relentless a critic as he was to Bush in order to maintain his outsider status, or will the show’s parody find a new target such as the media, or the corporate leaders whose actions led to the downfall of the American economy

Object of analysis & methodology

In my analysis of the content of The Daily Show I looked at 33 comedy segments in the 12 episodes airing every Monday and Thursday between January 26 – March 9, and March 19, 2009[1] – shows broadcast within the first several weeks after the Obama inauguration.  In my research, I only included the segments that comprised the non-interview portions of the show, which occur, generally speaking, in the first 15-20 minutes of the program.

Because The Daily Show is only aired on Monday-Thursday each week, I chose shows at the beginning and end of this cycle in order to have my sample as evenly distributed over time as possible. One reason for this was to avoid “clumping” of running jokes, which frequently fall on consecutive days.  While it could be argued that the fact of The Daily Show presenting running gags may suggest saliency of the issues they examine, it was my goal to obtain a representative sample by choosing episodes that were as evenly spaced as possible over the chosen period of time.

I defined each of the “segments” analyzed as portions of the show that adhered to a single topic of discussion – such as Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia, or the Blagojevich impeachment.  Each of these could run several minutes and contain several jokes within it.  Fortunately, The Daily Show often has titles for each of their segments (such as “Asian Provocateur” or “Scumdog Million-Hairs” in the examples above), making it easier to differentiate between segments. I coded each of these segments into one or two of the following categories:  a) critical of the Obama administration, b) supportive of the Obama administration, c) critical of Republicans (individuals, or as a party) d) supportive of Republicans, d) critical of Democrats, e) supportive of Democrats, f) critical of mainstream news media, g) supportive of mainstream news media and finally, h) unrelated to partisan politics or news media.


One of the first things that becomes obvious by looking at the results of the research is that parody, as defined by Jones and others as a method of political and social criticism, does not lend itself well to being particularly supportive of anything, at least directly.   As seen below, none of the 33 segments could be considered to be supportive of Republicans, Democrats, or the news media.

Segment code No of segments Percentage of all segments
Critical of the Obama administration 2 6%
Supportive of the Obama administration 4 12%
Critical of Republicans 9 27%
Supportive of Republicans 0
Critical of Democrats 2 6%
Supportive of Democrats 0
Critical of news media 7 21%
Supportive of news media 0
Unrelated to partisan politics or media 13 39%

Another problem, which will be further explored in the discussion, is that although there were segments that, at least indirectly, supported the Obama administration, these were often contained within the very segments that, at the same time, criticized Republicans.  Often the support of Obama became evident through Stewart’s criticism of Republican response to Obama’s policies. Such segments were coded as both critical of Republicans and supportive of Obama.

Criticism of Barack Obama’s administration

Only 2 segments could be considered at all critical of the Obama administration, and in neither case did Stewart make outright or implied criticism of the policies of the president.  The first, on the February 26 broadcast of The Daily Show, is not critical of Obama himself, but of Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State.  In the segment, entitled “Asian Provocateur,” Stewart makes fun of the fact that Clinton, in a recent trip to East Asia, mused on the definition of love in her speech in Seoul, and also that she downplayed the importance of human rights in China, giving priority to economic, climate change, and security crises.

In the second segment coded as critical of the Obama administration, Stewart once again makes no outright criticism of the president’s politics or policies, but instead ridicules the gifts to foreign leaders given by both Obama and Clinton.   The segment, “Brown in the USA”, exposes the fact that on a recent trip to the US, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave Obama a thoughtful, hand made gift with historic significance, and Obama gave Brown “Twenty-Five DVDs.”  He also finds humor in a superficial gift given to the Russian Foreign Minister by Hillary Clinton.  Clearly these instances, if they can be read as critical at all, are far less condemning and more superficial than The Daily Show’s scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 tragedy or the Iraq war.

Support for the Obama Presidency

Even more problematic than finding instances of The Daily Show criticizing Obama was finding segments that outright supported him.   Parody, by definition, is a style of humor that engenders criticism, not support.  There certainly seemed to be evidence of support for Obama and his administration, but this support was never explicitly stated.  Instead, it was implicit within Stewart’s condemnation of policies and actions that oppose the president’s policies.  For example, in a segment entitled “Guantanamo Baywatch – The Final Season” on January 26, Stewart shows clips of a number of Republicans expressing their disdain for Obama’s order to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay, and mocks their suggestions of what to do with the prisoners (moving them to Alcatraz, for example.)  While the segment never openly expresses espousal of Obama’s order, Stewart’s extreme criticism of the president’s detractors makes his tacit support clear.   A second example of this phenomenon occurs just three days later, on January 29, in a segment documenting the Senate confirmation hearings for Eric Holder, Obama’s nominee for attorney general.  In it, Stewart describes Holder’s style as “straightforward” as compared to Bush’s nominee, Alberto Gonzalez.  Again, Stewart manages to criticize Republicans and support the Obama administration within the context of a single joke.  This occurs twice more on February 5th, with one segment criticizing the Republican response to Obama’s economic stimulus plan, and another criticizing Dick Cheney’s condemnation of Obama’s policies of non-torture and due process for prisoners. These examples also posed problems in coding the segments, as they could be considered both critical of Republicans and supportive of Obama.   For this reason, they were coded as both.

A corollary to this assumption of The Daily Show’s implicit support of the Obama administration is its explicit criticism of Republicans.  In 9 (27%) of the segments analyzed, The Daily Show was critical of either individual Republican politicians, or of the Republican Party itself.  Although the GOP no longer controls either the White House or Congress, Stewart and his writers were still able to find a number of issues on which to attack Republicans.  In addition to their criticisms of Obama’s policies mentioned above, these included: Michael Steele elected as RNC Chair, Republican attack on the Economic Stimulus Plan, Republicans who didn’t accept money from the stimulus plan, and the hypocrisy of the party members who distanced themselves from former President Bush at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).   In contrast to these numerous examples of Republican criticism – and in addition to the 2 instances of critique of the Obama administration – I found only 2 examples of similar criticism of Democrats.  The first was a condemnation of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and the other a superficial criticism of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle for his failure to pay taxes.   Clearly, The Daily Show is still finding plenty to critique among Republicans and conservatives, even though Democrats now hold the majority of political power.

Focus on News Media & The Economy

After Republicans, the group most often targeted by The Daily Show as the subject of critique was the mainstream American news media.   This makes sense, given that The Daily Show positions itself as a “fake news” program, and as we’ve seen, critique of mainstream news is a staple of the show’s humor.   It’s interesting to note, however, that of the 7 segments coded as media critical, 4 (57%) were critical specifically of Fox News, widely considered to be a conservative news network.    Because of this, it’s possible to interpret the show’s critique of these segments as also critical of conservatives, although they were not coded as such.  This interpretation would lend evidence to the argument that The Daily Show still considers the “power” to which it speaks truth to be the Republicans and conservatives, even though they are the political minority.

Finally, I’d like to briefly examine the largest group of segments, the 39% coded as non-critical of specific politicians, political parties, or mainstream media.    Of these 13 segments, 6 (46%) dealt specifically with the current economic crisis.  While these segments were not specifically critical of a particular party or of the media, many of them tended to be critical of either corporate (presumably conservative) CEOs, or of the Republicans’ negative response to Obama’s stimulus package.  Therefore, to connect the dots and conclude that some of these segments were at least suggestively critical of conservatives would not be entirely unreasonable.


While parody may not lend itself to support, we have seen that The Daily Show did implicitly support the president, on occasion, by criticizing his detractors. While the Obama administration was only (superficially) criticized twice, Republicans and the news media –specifically conservative media – remained the primary targets of the show’s critique. The economic crisis has also drawn focus, but the issue was used, in many cases, as a vehicle for the disparagement of Republicans and conservatives.   Perhaps it is too early in the life of the administration for Obama to have fumbled to the point of parody, but it’s clear that while The Daily Show may still speak “truth to power”, it continues to speak louder to Republicans than to Democrats, even though “power” is now solidly in the hands of the latter.

Works Cited

Baym, Geoffrey. “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of  Political Journalism.” Political Communication 22 (2005): 259-276.

Boler, Megan. “The Daily Show, Crossfire, and the Will to Truth.” Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture.  June 2006 Volume 3 Number 1.

<> , accessed April 5, 2009.

Day, Amber.  “And Now…the News?” Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era.  Ed. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU Press, 2009. 85-103.

Gray, Jonathan. Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody and Intertextuality. New York: Routledge,  2006.  94-116.

Jones, Jeffrey P.  Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 2005.

Van Zoonen, Liesbet. Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.  1-18.

Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern. 1969

[1] Because The Daily Show broadcast of Thursday, March 12 was devoted entirely to an interview with MSNBC host Jim Cramer, I substituted this with the broadcast from the following Thursday, March 19.

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