Can TV Survive the Smirky Guys?

First came Letterman. Then ESPN juiced up sports news. Now there’s a new crop of hosts who think they’re smarter, hipper, smugger and, well, funnier than YOU’LL ever be. Isn’t it ironic?

By Paul Brownfield

The Joke’s on Who? It’s the attack of the smirky guys – those masters of knee-jerk sarcasm dotting the TV landscape. But how much do they really have to say?
"When news breaks, we fix it" is the catch phrase on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show," and when the news broke recently that a former white House intern was on audiotape detailing a year-and-a-half long affair with President Clinton, "The Daily Show" was there with the quick fix.
"A year and a half?" host Craig Kilborn quoted Clinton as saying in denial. "I would have become bored and cheated on her after six months."
Taken on its own, the joke is no big deal – just a garden-variety comedic spin of a headline from a show that could be seen as a descendant of the "Weekend Update" segment on "Saturday Night Live."
But seen in the context of today’s climate of smirking talk show hosts, sports anchors and pop culture Satirists, Kilborn’s irreverence seems less a spot of comic relief than part of a growing malaise of knee-jerk sarcasm coming from television, what essayist David Foster Wallace calls "a shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence in the big face that TV shows us."
You could call them the smirky guys – a male-dominated subset of TV personalities giving satire a bad name. In winking and smirking their way through a given broadcast, they reassure us that nothing need be taken seriously – and, by extension, understood.

Says Lizz Winstead the former head writer of Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show": "You have to ask yourself, ‘How much of the irony is there because [the personality] lacks a working knowledge of the information, and how much is it the presentation of real information?"
While sometimes sharply written, "The Daily Show" can nevertheless fell so self-satisfied that it’s hard for some of us to participate in the fun. Winstead left the show a month ago after a publicized feud with Kilborn, who perhaps took the glib pose to an extreme when he told an Esquire magazine report that Winstead found him so attractive she would gladly give him oral sex.
Not surprisingly, Winstead is now given to wonder why there are so many "cigar bar frat-guy" types delivering the news.
"To find another way to invite people in is the challenge for humor writers," she says. "Because I don’t know how many more ways there are to be the smart-alecky guy."

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times

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