Why Jon Stewart’s Coin Bit Failed

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

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.