Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are two of the funniest comedians in show business. On The Daily Show, Stewart mocks contemporary news coverage, while Colbert satirizes political pundit programs on The Colbert Report. For years now, the Comedy Central shows have joined hands in leading the empire of sociopolitical comedy, teaching America’s youth about current events, and earning no shortage of Emmys for their troubles (The Daily Show has 19, and the younger The Colbert Report has 4).
Even though Stewart and Colbert are respectful colleagues and close friends, it’s a lot of fun when they face off (albeit facetiously) for awards and the public’s love. It’s nearly impossible to choose considering that they both excel in different brands of humor, but the question must be asked: Who’s funnier?
The Case for Stewart
The premise behind The Daily Show is simple. Each night, Stewart discusses the trending news stories of the day through the prism of media coverage, and his intention is to expose the faults and limitations of professional media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. The clip below, for instance, finds Stewart talking about the missing Malaysian airplane, but instead of offering his analysis of the topic, he calls the viewer’s attention to the absurdity of the way the missing Malaysian airplane has been covered by the media. At times, Stewart is sarcastic and witty, but for the most part, he plays it straight and finds humor in CNN’s ridiculous coverage.
It is fair to describe Stewart as an observational comic. To him, the media’s inept coverage of most news stories is frustrating, but he overcomes his anger with humor, and adheres to the mantra “it’s funny because it’s true.” Like George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld, Stewart highlights his frustration with the ordinary world — in this case media and politics — and trusts that his viewers will similarly be frustrated by these truths to the point that they have no other option but to laugh about them together.
The Case for Colbert
The Colbert Report similarly covers media and politics, but Colbert’s style of humor is radically different. Unlike Stewart’s observational approach, Colbert relies more heavily on satire and hyperbole. Colbert has constructed a character that aims to mock the actual personalities of Fox News pundits like Bill O’Reilly. The intention is the same as Stewart’s: to point out the absurdity of the contemporary media landscape. But nothing Colbert says is meant to be taken literally, whereas Stewart often acts as the voice of reason. The clip below is fascinating because it finds Colbert straddling the line between real-life comedian and constructed character.
The Colbert many viewers have come to know is a fictional creation, and the actual comedian is able to be offensive without any repercussions. In this particular instance, Colbert reacts to criticism in a gloriously non-apologetic manner. The fun in watching the show is figuring out where the actual Colbert stands on many of the issues the fictional Colbert supports. Ultimately, the sustained success of The Colbert Report is the comedian’s ability to maintain the satirical tone throughout.
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