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January 15, 2013 10:17 AM Why Jon Stewart’s Coin Bit Failed

By Ryan Cooper

So, Jon Stewart took offense at Krugman and myself (okay, just Krugman) whacking him over his crappy coin segment:

If Stewart is going to just lean on his own ignorance and continue to claim without justification that the platinum seigniorage option was “a stupid f*cking idea,” then we’re at a bit of an impasse (though it is noteworthy that Stewart does correctly explain this time that the coin idea is an idea to get around the debt ceiling, something he did not do in the segment in question). So let me try to explain this in terms he could understand—the language of comedy. Take a look at this old Jerry Seinfeld bit:

Now, Jerry Seinfeld is a skilled comedian, and this bit is decent (for its time, anyway), but right towards the end there’s a perfect example of why Stewart’s coin bit was so offensive. He’s talking about how New York cabbies have weird names, and says:

Have you ever checked out some of the letters on those names on the license? The “O” with a line through it? What planet is that from? You need a chart of the elements just to report the guy. “Yes officer, his name was Amal, and then the symbol for boron.”

If you know even the rudiments of the periodic chart, then you know that all of the elemental symbols are just letters. Boron, being one of the earliest elements, is just a regular old B. So not only does this joke rely on the ignorance of the audience, it actually perpetuates it by implying that the periodic chart is composed of a bunch of bizarre symbols. It’s a cheap way to find a joke, and the best comedians usually avoid it.

This is exactly what Stewart did during his original coin segment. He implied that it was about paying off the national debt and said the real issue was restoring the world’s “faith in the US dollar,” both of which were completely wrong and misleading.

Again, I’m not saying that Stewart can’t joke about these things, or that he has to treat everything with deadly seriousness. For example, an absurdist riff on the coin—say something about Geither spending it on hookers and a Mt. Everest-sized pile of cocaine, and then Obama giving him a stern lecture afterward—would have been fine. I’m saying that when he makes jokes which are premised in actual reality he should make sure his premise is accurate. Like this, for example:

And if he can’t be arsed to look up anything on the coin beyond “I think it’s stupid,” then I for one will be happy to explain it to him. And I bet Krugman would too.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • Oxman2003 on January 16, 2013 10:42 AM:

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the critique of John Stewart advanced in this post is as ridiculous and it is wrongheaded.

    Mr. Cooper begins by telling us his feelings. He was deeply "offended" by Stewart's supposed misunderstanding of economics- a feeling I refuse to believe exists. (I mean, seriously? This is the comedy you find - quote - "so offensive"? Catch any Michael Richard's standup lately?) Then again, Cooper also feigns equal outrage when reminded of a 20 year-old Seinfeld joke based on a misspelling of the element Boron, which not only relies on audience ignorance but, in Cooper's severe judgment, "actually perpetuates it by implying that the periodic chart is composed of a bunch of bizarre symbols" and is thereby dammed, both comically and morally. So there's that.

    Having expressed these grievances, Cooper proceeds to explain how Stewart, like Seinfeld before him, perpetuates his audience's ignorance through his gross misrepresentation of the 'Trillion Dollar Coin' and its purpose vis-a-vis the debt ceiling. Stewart most egregious sin is his suggestion that the coin seigniorage is intended to address an erosion of confidence in U.S. currency.

    While currency confidence may not be the immediate concern of debt ceiling policies, Stewart's suggestion that the two are related is hardly the misrepresentation Cooper claims it to be. Indeed, many economists have voiced concern that breaching debt ceiling would undermine confidence in the American political system, and thereby undermine international support for the dollar as the world' s reserve currency. Since plenty of non-idiotic economists have suggested this as a potential long-term consequence of default, it hardly seems idiotic for a non-economist like Stewart to make the connection.

    ----

    Still, the most glaring problem at the heart of Cooper's - and Chait's, and Krugman's - critique is the failure to understand why Stewart chose to emphasize the connection between the debt ceiling and currency confidence. At the end of Stewart's opening bit on the coin, he exclaims: "we need to get the world to take the U.S. Dollar seriously again!", then segues into the second half of his monologue: Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary and the fact that his "signature" - a hilarious sequence of scribbly loops - will soon adorn every dollar in the land. With the jokes now perfectly tee-ed up, Steward rattles off a series of cheeky one-liners-... "stop signing all your checks on the tea-cup ride at Disney World""...- capped off by the a gloriously adolescent cock-and-balls joke.

    But what makes Stewart a comic genius - and what makes this segment, like so many TDS segments, so hilariously brilliant (or brilliantly hilarious?) - isn't the rapid-fire send-up of Lew's loopy signature, but rather its juxtaposition with the leftover, unspoken tension from before. Government default looms, and with it, an erosion of confidence in the American Dollar. Yet how much confidence can the dollar hope to claim when it's signed in the same font as hostess cupcake frosting.

    It's a brilliant segment, but it only works comedically if the debt ceiling fight is framed as a threat to our national currency, thereby creating the backdrop for the riff on Lew's signature. Cooper, Chait and Krugman weren't watching TDS for what it is - a comedy show - but what they want it to be- an arrow in their political offensive. But the battle over seigniorage is already over, and soon the debt ceiling war will be over too. Yet long after both are behind us, Stewart's segment will still be funny. And these fools still won't know why.

  • mike on January 18, 2013 11:03 AM:

    funny article Stewart is funny but Jerry Seinfeld is a legend :)

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