Why, exactly, did Michiko Kakutani write a profile of Jon Stewart in this past Sunday’s New York Times?
The infamous Times books critic depicted Stewart and The Daily Show in a way that seemed an attempt at an imprimatur, a High Brow Stamp of Approval from the diva of literary reviews. It’s an attempt that produced something of a non-result.
Stewart has been profiled before, in the Times and elsewhere—among others, Frank Rich did it in 2003, and Damien Cave did it in 2005. His portrait gains little luster from Kakutani’s standard mix of handpicked details and sweeping statements (how else do you review literary tomes?), because unlike even the most constant writers of our time (say, Updike, Roth, or even DeLillo), Stewart is almost constantly in the spotlight.
Kakutani’s stamp of approval is something of a Holy Grail for newbie authors, and her indictments of even the most canonic writers can almost reverse a flood of critical adoration. (Coming to mind is her recent review of Salman Rushdie’s newest book, which, she wrote, is “lacquered onto a plywood story with a heavy paintbrush that leaves lots of streaks and spots and results in a work that feels jerry-built, meretricious—and yes, quite devoid of magic.”)
Kakutani is a stranger to the world of comedy news shows, however, and while sending an outsider to report on an unfamiliar milieu can be a brilliant editorial strategy, it doesn’t work here. (Incidentally, the observer role has, in the past, suited her fairly well. In October of 2001, when she described how the interconnectedness provided by cable and Internet served as a conduit for a collective fear, her detachment made for an interesting, if somewhat pedantic, panoramic read of those landscapes.)
With respect to the Stewart piece, it’s not just that there’s little new about it (a legitimate and concrete gripe). There’s a more significant disconnect here, one caused by the inability of Kakutani As Critic to do what she does best. For once, her stamp of approval doesn’t really matter (and that’s what her well-honed thing is). Take this summation:
“The Daily Show” resonates not only because it is wickedly funny but also because its keen sense of the absurd is perfectly attuned to an era in which cognitive dissonance has become a national epidemic.
It’s typical Kakutani: the distillation of a theme or plot or entire book (take your pick) into a smartly written, syntactically attractive sentence. But her words slide off the page like so many extraneous drops of water, because The Daily Show has been distilled, and the verdict, from a mélange of reporters, pundits and viewers, is already in. Her own verdict—however confidently awarded—means very little.
It would have made sense for someone like Kakutani to write a piece outside of her ordinary scope if there were further need for a cultural arbiter to assess and assign value to the show. But The Daily Show doesn’t need Michiko Kakutani to confirm its relevance. The other option was to report the hell out of the piece and actually offer up some new and interesting details about Stewart and the evolving operations of the show. Unfortunately, Kakutani, whether she was resting easy on her critic’s couch or leery of entering the world of scrappy reportage, didn’t do that, either. At one point in the profile, she calls what Stewart does on a nightly basis—informing and entertaining—an “ambidextrous feat.” Kakutani, at least this time around, appears a bit more one-handed in her efforts.