Jon Stewart and ‘The Daily Show’ write off ‘America’

    America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” is a thick, hardback tome that looks and feels like a government textbook, yet is so engaging (and sometimes nonfactual) that it succeeds much better than most textbooks currently being used in schools.

    Written by Jon Stewart and the rest of the crew behind Comedy Central’s immensely popular mock-newscast “The Daily Show,” the book marks their brave foray into comedy in written form. Using standard textbook conventions, the book jumps nimbly between discussions of “Democracy Before America,” the three branches of government, the American media, elections, the future of democracy and a dash of world studies.

    After suffering through many rounds of history, social studies and civics classes, reading pretentious, boring textbooks, “America” is a tremendously rewarding breath of fresh air. The very textbook conventions real schoolbooks drive into the ground (footnotes, classroom activities, discussion questions, and factoids under the heading, “Did You Know?”) are the very features that “America” simultaneously mocks and uses to great effect.

    Except, as the book notes, the phrase “Did You Know?” is trademarked by a rival publisher, so “America” uses the heading “Were You Aware?” instead.

    For what it’s worth, “America” varies its formats more, and to much better effect, than real textbooks, with their huge, continuous blocks of dry text. Certainly no traditional history textbooks have dedicated space to “Ranking the Presidents” or “The Brain of the Pundit,” or dared to reproduce a menu from the Congressional cafeteria or to have a game entitled “Dress the Supreme Court,” which features computer-assembled images of all nine justices buck-naked.

    “America” is peppered with short first-person perspectives written by “The Daily Show” correspondents Rob Corddry, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, and Samantha Bee, but generally these fall flat (except for Colbert’s “Warren G. Harding: Our Worst President,” which is brilliant). Weak as they are, they succeed in providing a welcome and effective change in the book’s tone and point of view — something not even real textbooks have managed to accomplish with their use of first-person essays.

    Paradoxically, a book which uses as jumping-off points the most stultifying features of our history, textbooks, news broadcasts and political campaigns is a sharply intelligent and incredibly entertaining work. Its writers have a better grasp of America’s history, political process, and struggles than do most journalists, politicians and textbook writers. Perhaps the “America” writing team should give up the comedic genre and write a true textbook — students the country over would rejoice.

    But the irony is that “America” succeeds as a true reference book and an informative complement to any high school graduate’s existing knowledge of history and government. Its treatments of early philosophers, the founding fathers and the presidents are especially good. They’re incredibly colorful, and they inform while they entertain with all manners of quips, jabs and outright jokes (“Though Ronald Reagan was not considered Kennedyesque, many historians believe he was among our most Reaganesque commanders in chief”).

    The book does contain a fair amount of outright fiction, but who wouldn’t argue that the made-up quote by Nixon, “The power was nice, but frankly I could’ve used more power,” nonetheless strikes at the heart of Nixon’s presidency? It’s these underlying truths, disguised as absurdly made-up quotes and facts, that make the book so arrestingly, hilariously intelligent. The authors aren’t afraid to make fun of historical figures and events, the writers of conventional textbooks, the educational system, the American media, readers’ own biases and prejudices and themselves — sometimes all at the same time.

    And they aren’t afraid to combine highbrow humor with political incorrectness. One “Were You Aware?” box informs us that “96%” of congressional incumbents are re-elected — which means the other 4% must really suck.” A caption on a photo of George W. Bush reads, “This Connecticut-born, Yale- and Harvard-educated multimillionaire son of a former president ran as an outsider in 2000. Many experts still wonder how the fuck he pulled that off.” And in the middle of being taught about the voting process we’re told, “Before 1920, women used to call Election Day ‘Stay Home and Cook Day.’ Though they won’t admit it, women were much happier when all they had to do was bake shit and pump out kids.”

    The beauty is all are skewered equally in “America” — even women and minorities (and, in turn, bigots are given a sound trouncing). The ultimate message is that every group in America has its foibles — foibles that, if exposed in just the right manner, as the book usually manages to do, are screamingly funny.

    The wisdom in “America” lies in the way it promotes a more accurate picture of our nation and our history than most real textbooks. We’re a nation at odds with ourselves — so complacent that we don’t bother to vote, xenophobic and ignorant in many respects, given over to selfishness and greed, glued to our TVs, destined for a future that’s most likely bleak. “America” could be interpreted as a call to arms. It could be interpreted as a work born out of cynicism and anti-Americanism. Or it could be interpreted as a bunch of on-air comedians simply taking humor in strange, uncharted directions.

    But for those of us who measure America’s worth by our capacity to laugh at ourselves, the book is a valuable and poignant addition to our national consciousness.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal