Jon Stewart's interview of Barack Obama last night was a good one, with the comedian not shying away from pointed questions about the first two years of his presidency. But there was one aspect of it that just about ruined it: the audience.
Having a crowd cheering and clapping, interrupting both Obama and Stewart multiple times, turned what should have been a thoughtful debate into an arena battle. A crowd makes sense for something like a sporting event or a comedy show. You want an audience to provide energy, to react where reactions are warranted.
But the trouble with having a live audience at what is supposed to be a relatively serious discussion is that it forces everything to be dumbed down to soundbites. Any subtlety is removed, as who cheers for a nuanced argument? A crowd wants to cheer for big proclamations, for sweeping statements.
And that's the trouble with Stewart moving more into the realm of legitimate political pundits. If he wants to do a real interview with the leader of the free world, it sure undercuts his standing to have a live audience screaming and clapping when he makes a point.
Because really, an audience that dumbly cheers at mentions of liberal talking points and boos at mentions of the tea party or republican candidates represents everything in the current political media climate that Stewart normally rallies against. It represents a dumbed-down, over-hyped level of discourse, one that ignores the complex facts behind what's going on in government in favor of the overly simplistic us vs. them, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, left vs. right dichotomy that cable news has embraced so strongly.
Just imagine if a show on Fox News had a live studio audience. If every time Sean Hannity mentioned death panels or Obamacare, he got a raucous ovation. It would make something that's already oversimplified and dumbed down even more so, encouraging pandering and self-congratulation and lowering the level of discourse even further.
Of course, most of the time The Daily Show needs its studio audience. It's still a comedy show after all, and Stewart going through his opening segments to silence would zap a whole lot of energy from the show. Sure, the audience's propensity to cheer for a point rather than laugh at a joke can be grating, but that's the nature of the beast with a political comedy show.
But when Stewart brings on serious guests and wants to have serious discussions with them, it might make more sense to do it without that live audience. Because when the President of the United States can't get through three sentences without being interrupted by cheering and whooping, it makes everyone watching feel a little bit dumber for being a part of that audience.