Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Book Review: America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction--by Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show

From Jon Stewart's latest book: restore dignity to the current justices of the Supreme Court of the United States by matching them with their correct robes

This book reads like a lengthy satire magazine. Not surprising as it is a volume of political wit from Jon Stewart (and his staff of writers), the acclaimed current yank master. But it even looks like a glossy mag (cum bizarro world instruction guide), with loads of amusing inserts: pie charts, graphs and humourously bastardized words and pictures of famous philosophers and politicians. Photocopies of these clever additions (see above) are likely already adorning dorm room walls and cubicle separaters throughout the land.

Aimed at the college crowd and those under thirty who make up the apparent loyal and sycophantic following of Stewart's, they will hail this as another example of his brilliance. Having not yet seen his acclaimed television program I was free from any bias. After finishing the book I'm guessing his real talent is on the glass tit, though there are stll plenty of laughs to be had here.

While his brand of humour and delivery is near genius levels according to his fans, it is impossible to develop any type of real narrative using this style in print. Quips, one-liners, droll observations and the ever popular insertion of a current or recent pop-culture reference into an historical situation, morphing the 2 into amusing scenarios replete with double and triple entendres, are quickly established as the few gimmicks in his shallow but never empty trick-bag. As is the habit of fake quotes attributed to historical figures in which they use the word "fuck," which wears thin after the first half dozen times.

The grandiose claims that have adorned the public declarations and unctuous volumes, as well as the smarmy politicians who have peddled lies throughout history as highlighted against the true shit-caked, hypocritical reality, is the ostensible theme of the book. In fact, the real motif that eclipses that and exists throughout is...the collective wit of Stewart and the group of professional writers who assisted him. Not a bad substitute considering how skilled they are.

Ranging from "Democracy Before America," through the other nine blandly titled chapters covering various aspects of the US government system and closing with "The Rest of the World," the over-riding schtick is that it is meant to be a wacky textbook or helpful guide. The additional instructions supplied to "teachers" for classroom activities are often hilarious as are some of the graphics (for some reason the send-up of the Presidential library had me gagging with laughter) and the running gimmick allows for the loosely connected stand-alone chapters.

The huge heaping of sex-related jokes throughout will have the self-righteous bible beaters outraged. The ones who won't even read the book but will be extremely perturbed by its presence and popularity and will see it as another opportunity to try and dictate to others. As usual these clowns and their insidious, shrill pronouncements will backfire, as demonstrated by the load of free publicity gained when Stewart's book was most recently yanked from the shelves of some libraries in Mississippi as a result of the picture that appears at the beginning of this review.

Ruthlessly hammering and mocking everything in sight, where nothing is above being laughed at, is Stewart's stock in trade. This is something good, a mentality I share. Various ethnic and special interest groups all have their foibles and absurdities slammed, just as every lying duplicitous, hypocritical sack of shit politician is eviscerated, regardless of which party or ideology they have whored themselves out to...a true delight for the anti-PC crowd.

Before reading this book I knew it would inevitably be rated against the other two widely accessible left-leaning political humourists of yank origin—Michael Moore and Al Franken. Though much different in style, the similar target audience makes the comparison worthwhile. All generalists whose prose styles could be handled by a 12 year-old, they have convinced a new generation of adult readers that to have breezed through their offerings is to have a solid grounding in the issues of the day. Of the 3, I would peg Franken's Lying Liars book as the better overall volume in terms of readability, style and effectiveness. Moore's substandard polemics which play fast and loose with the truth, employ sweeping generalizations and are lacking in solid research are the poorest of the lot and a 2nd rate companion to his entertaining documentaries.

Stewart's first publishing endeavor is as consistent as it is limited in its scope. Unlike Moore and Franken, Stewart doesn't offer up the requisite "underneath all my sarcastic venom I know us yanks are still the best," type of jingoistic crap. A hip, jaded version of that underlying mantra most yanks casually accept, served up to appeal to as many as possible and avoid offending the tender sensibilities of those whose cries of "traitor" could affect future sales. Thankfully Stewart avoids this type of horseshit altogether.

With Stewart's obvious wit and shrewd analysis of politics and popular culture, this book could have been much better than the one-dimensional result. How about a longer set-up beyond the 2-sentence jokes that are rattled off? Another indication of his full conditioning by his work on the tube and a recognition of the average attention span of those most likely to be reading his book. Of course, business smarts in catering to a pre-existing audience and a desire to sell as many books as possible likely instructed the end product as well.

No doubt Stewart and his flunkies are astutely skilled in lampooning any subject they choose and rarely does this book descend into that "too clever by half" territory. His television audience will love this book, though curiously the aping of the steady delivery of one-liners that works so well on the tube left me feeling frazzled. The rapid-fire skewering of individuals and riffing on different subjects doesn't lend itself to being "the kind of book you can't put down." I would recommend this as a bathroom accompaniment or a beer and pizza-stained frat-house prop for referencing the humorous lines that appear throughout. Always being amazed at how different writers progress in style and scope, I look forward to future attempts by Stewart (though a compilation effort he most likely had a great deal of input) that move beyond a format he has already mastered and is best suited to television.