Cynics, Hypocrites, and Nasty Boys: Senator Larry Craig and Gay Rights Caught in the Grotesque Frame

C. Wesley Buerkle, East Tennessee State University


In 2007 US Senator Larry Craig plead guilty to soliciting sex in an airport men’s room, a notable irony as he has a consistent record of voting against gay-rights. Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sought to punish Craig for homophobia by hoisting him with his own homophobic petard, using homosexuality as a punch line. Turning to Burke to untangle this rhetorical knot, we see The Daily Show providing a grotesque response to Craig’s troubles. As a transitional frame, the grotesque has received relatively little scholarly attention, due in part to the fact that this particular response to social and political strife does little to resolve the conflict at hand. As analysis shows, by punishing Craig as a grotesque figure while using a strategy of prejudice he, himself, would employ (i.e., homophobia) the social and political struggle over gay-rights becomes mired in cynical mud rather than providing either defense for homosexual acceptance or potential for Craig’s personal redemption. By contrast, we can see that a comic response focusing on Craig’s seeming repressed homoerotic desire would redeem Craig as lost, not hopeless, and gay rights as a logical course.

US Senator Larry Craig (Republican, Idaho) appeared on Meet the Press in January 1999 to speak of then-president Bill Clinton’s publicly-known sexual misconduct: “The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state who, in the majority, think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.” A scant eight years later, in June 2007, Senator Craig had his mug shot taken after being charged with soliciting sex in a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport during a sting operation meant to catch just such activity. It should go without saying that when the story of Craig’s arrest and guilty plea broke some two months later, it had all the necessary ingredients for rich, late-night television comedy: a US senator, charges of sexual misconduct, denial, hypocrisy, and—the pièce de résistance—homosexuality. For the more cynical corners of television comedy, epitomized by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (TDS), the story came as a delicious cross between Laud Humphreys’s Tearoom Trade and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. Here, a sitting US senator, on record against gay rights and critic of politician’s sexual misconduct, plead guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s restroom. The ensuing responses from TDS capture the existing tension in discourses regarding popular media discussion of gay-male sexuality: a progressive tendency for gay rights amidst a persisting stigma toward homosexuality.

Hosted by the acerbic Jon Stewart, TDS describes itself as a fake news show, reporting political news stories with biting, satirical commentary from the host and correspondents. A person like Craig, a politician who opposes gay rights and pleads guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s room, becomes an easy source for low-brow jokes against personal hypocrisy and the conservative politics TDS despises. For TDS’s viewers, finding humor in the behaviors of political figures represents what Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living,” a means for an audience to make sense of and strike out at politicians who may not always seem to serve their constituents well (“Literature” 304). By using Burke’s poetic frames we can better understand the arc of TDS’s commentary and the effects it suggests, the extent to and means by which they embrace dominant ideologies or actually seek change, here, the degree to which they actually reject the homophobia they protest to so despise.
Not surprisingly, TDS treats Craig’s arrest and embarrassment as just deserts for condemning homosexuality. I argue, however, that TDS’s attempts to hoist Craig by his own petard inadvertently slur homosexuality by using same-sex desire as a punch line for jokes about intolerance and hypocrisy. The irony of the situation lies in the TDS’s reputation for challenging those who express homosexual intolerance or thwart the efforts of gay rights.[1] Finding humor in Craig’s alleged homosexuality muddies the waters of a pro-gay rights message, cementing a queer stigma amidst the efforts to erode exactly such an assumption. In this manner theirs represents a grotesque response that, as a transitional frame, cannot fully divorce itself from one ideology and therefore limits it from moving to new ways of thinking and doing. Reflecting on TDS’s treatment of Craig provides an opportunity to examine both the complexities of using humor as part of a gay rights discourses and the function of the grotesque frame which has received relatively little scholarly attention. 

The Grotesqueness of The Daily Show

A graduate school mentor of mine often said that Burke wants to do for society what Freud does for the individual.[2] By that, he meant Burke studies our symbolic activity to understand how we define and resolve the conflicts we experience in our personal and community lives. To that end, Burke suggests attitude as the organizing term for our (re)actions to life (“Dramatism” 446). In Attitudes Toward History, Burke arranges various attitudinal postures into three broad categories—acceptance, rejection, and transition—that define our discursive responses to human misdeeds by figuratively destroying, banishing, or merely reprimanding the wrongdoer. For its part, TDS processes the day’s political news, bringing attention to political figures’ missteps and then deciding whether the behavior warrants the person’s destruction, banishment, or reproof. Looking at the TDS’s responses to the Craig scandal in terms of the attitudes adopted helps us to understand the implications of their discourse, how they accept and reject components of that which they critique. Looking first to the literature concerning the grotesque frame, I discuss below the nature of the grotesque attitude as a mode of discourse that seeks change despite being unable to let go of the familiar. Then, turning to scholarship on TDS, I make the case that Stewart and his collaborators process political news for their audience, rather than merely seeking cheap laughs, thereby providing a sense of order and accountability to politicians’ behaviors. Understanding the grotesque response and TDS’s role in public discourse sets the scene for the predicament of gay rights in popular discourse and the extent to which TDS’s responses to the Craig scandal matter to larger socio-political discussions.

Burke discusses the grotesque as one of eight poetic categories, or frames, that represent the ways in which we cast our experiences in relation to the status quo (Attitudes 34). As a transitional frame, the grotesque perspective wishes to shun the present system but is either unwilling or unable to let go and, therefore, cannot move forward to a new order. Much scholarship on the use of Burkean frames has concentrated on acceptance and rejection frames. Acceptance frames (epic, comic, and tragic) respect the current system and confront problems or challenges in a manner that remedies the difficulty without having to make any serious changes to the established order. By contrast, rejection frames (burlesque, satire, and elegy) seize upon a moment of disharmony as demonstrating the system’s fatal error and need for some new organization. Analyses emphasizing the presence of acceptance or rejection frames often indicate that audiences find resolution to social and political unpleasantness through either rejecting the current order or accepting it by remedying some troublesome component (Appel; Bostdorff “Making” and “Vice Presidential”; Brummett; Carlson “Gandhi”; Hubbard; Moore).[3] Still other studies note that responses to unrest may move through or concurrently exhibit characteristics of acceptance and rejection of the status quo (Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson; Carlson “Limitations”). Relatively little scholarship looks to what happens when conflicts arise that receive neither clear acceptance nor rejection (Boje, Luhman, and Cunliffe; Chesebro and McMahan; Olbrys).[4]

In the case of TDS’s treatment of Craig, we find a response that neither accepts the status quo as TDS abhors those who do not give full respect to queer-identified men and women, yet invokes homophobic humor to punish others’ intolerance. The internal conflict between denouncing and engaging similar behaviors signals the presence of a transitional response, here the grotesque. Burke identifies the grotesque as one of two frames (grotesque and didactic) that occupy an overlapping space between acceptance and rejection. These occur when the response to a rupture within the expected order neither fully defends nor expels the dominant structure. In the case of the grotesque the response typically seizes upon an individual to punish as emblematic of a failed system 

Burke cautions that no response to social conflicts exists in its “chemical purity,” but instead with a degree of “free play” between categories of responses (Attitudes 57). TDS itself often relies upon comic and burlesque attitudes, especially the latter when responding to a perceived lack of support for gay rights. Both comic and burlesque responses can become difficult to distinguish from each other and the grotesque. The comic response, which need not be humorous, features a clown—someone acting in error not malice—who is rebuked, thus creating an opportunity for repentance that restores both the order and the offender to it (Burke, Attitudes 41; Appel; Brummett; Bostdorff “Vice Presidential”; Carlson “Limitations” and “Gandhi”). A segment on TDS from July 29, 2008 teases John McCain for a lack of charisma and ease, at one point picking on McCain’s seeming discomfort with holding the Dalia Lama’s hand: “Boy, McCain does not look comfortable there. . . . Here’s what you’ve gotta love about McCain: The guy’s got no poker face” (“Indecision”). The sentiment expressed emphasizes that McCain is not ridiculous, merely awkward, giving him the potential to improve himself.

Unlike the comic, a burlesque treatment shows no mercy to the accused. The burlesque’s central character, the buffoon, receives no mercy from assailants, who seize upon every flaw as a fatal error thereby dismissing the offender and entire system as imbecilic (Burke, Attitudes 54; Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson; Carlson “Limitations,” Bostdorff “Making”; Moore). In both the comic and burlesque cases the individual is flawed, but in a burlesque, over a comic frame, the offender and the system itself are regarded as beyond hope rather than worthy and capable of redemption. Responding to Congressional hearings on the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Stewart mocks an army ranger who testifies that the need for men to huddle for warmth could create an awkward moment for a gay man: “If nighttime patrol gives you a hard-on, I think you’ve got bigger problems than being gay” (“Don’t Ask”). In this instance the wittiness, his ideology, and the existing military code seem to have no chance for repair.

Burke recognizes that the fields of acceptance and rejection do not enjoy harsh delineations and some responses to social struggles may fall between the two. These transitional responses, including the grotesque, neither clearly point toward acceptance or rejection but exist in a conflicted state, dissatisfied with the current practices yet unable to dismiss them altogether (Burke, Attitudes 58). As a transitional frame, the grotesque expresses confusion by emphasizing the symbolic over the objective (Burke, Attitudes 59-60). David Boje, John Luhman, and Ann Cunliffe emphasize the grotesque’s irony and its departure from the “Public Frame that people accept as commonsense.” This departure from the strictly logical, or forensic, encourages a scrappiness—both in terms of bricolage and feistiness—in which individuals make sense of their world by taking whatever they can from conflicting systems. Though Edward Watson cautions that “Burke does not define the grotesque; his comments are offered merely for their suggestive value,” Watson goes on to attempt a codification of the grotesque as “merging incongruities in keeping with the principle of the oxymoron; its ultimate purpose is . . . the achievement of a new ‘transcendent’ perspective” (35). While I agree that the grotesque manages incongruities by allowing for the oxymoronic, I take issue with the latter part of his definition, for though the grotesque brings together conflicting elements, its goal remains survival rather than a great enlightenment or new religion. Burke writes of the pull between acceptance and rejection frames that persons confronting social conflict find “good and evil elements intermingled. But [they] cannot leave matters at that. Exigencies of living require [them] to choose [their] alignments” (Attitudes 106). In the case of transitional frames, those alignments are not made and turmoil continues.

The distinctions between central characters in this transitional frame versus the central actors in acceptance and rejection frames provide more insight into what makes for the grotesque. The grotesque’s key actors are those whom we disdain because they act illogically and without any source for sympathy, thus allowing us to write them off, even as we are yet uncertain what to make of the mess left behind. Hugh Duncan finds the grotesque character unique from others because the person “is not disobeying commandments he (sic) understands and can will freely to obey or disobey” (391). The grotesque figure’s incomprehensibility may provoke laughter or disdain. In the case of laughter, Burke says, “The grotesque is not funny unless you are out of sympathy with it” (Attitudes 58). Therefore, laughing at a grotesque figure indicates something or someone we seek to reject. Where in the comic frame humor—though not necessary—acts as a corrective to bring the fool back into the fold by laughing with the errant member, the grotesque perspective laughs the person out the door. The laughter from a burlesque response also ejects the wrongdoer, but does it in a manner entirely rejecting what the person stands for whereas the grotesque cannot quite decide what to do with the existing order. In this way grotesque victims are the saddest of all, for their sacrifice comes with no greater gains than their own destruction. Comic and burlesque targets, by comparison, endure punishment as part of a corrective action of themselves and/or society.

As a self-proclaimed “fake news show,” TDS takes to task those in the day’s news, primarily politicians, who have taken part in or engaged some sort of social tension. A growing body of scholarship on TDS consistently recognizes that rather than being “fake” news, TDS demonstrates an alternate mode of journalism that engages the news itself rather than merely reporting it. Some findings demonstrate that TDS provides at least as much reportage as network-television news if not, in fact, more in-depth coverage of topics while also creating broader connections between events than mainstream news reporting (Fox, Koloen, and Sahin 222; Baym 264).[5] Noticeably different from traditional news reporting, however, TDS provides “dissident interpretations of current political events” thereby challenging corporate, traditionally produced news (Warner 19). As Lauren Feldman argues, part of the attraction of TDS to younger audiences lies in the show’s suggestion that the audience, like the TDS itself, may participate in challenging dominant modes of news reporting and production (422). As such, TDS offers satirical commentary on the shortcomings and blunders of those in politics, providing an opportunity for the audience to share in their processing of the news. The responses to political events regularly demonstrate either a comic or burlesque approach, depending upon whether or not TDS invites their audience to identify with whomever Stewart and company are ridiculing at the moment.

While some recognize TDS and its often scathing critique of the day’s news as an alternate mode of journalism, others question the larger social benefit it presents. In debate over the political value of TDS, some suggest the show offers mere mockery of political/public wrongdoing rather than contributing to needed political dialogue. In their mock-trial of Stewart for criminally intense cynicism as TDS host, Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius acknowledge the accused’s liberal bias that seeks to always challenge the establishment: “an emblem of the subversive, take-no-prisoners attitude needed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (264). Against Hart and Hartelius’s accusations of unproductive cynicism, Robert Hariman and W. Lance Bennett, respectively, defend Stewart and friends for providing comic—in the Burkean sense—responses to political strife and tools for the public to engage with the harsh realities of the political process. These defenses are predicated upon the assumption that TDS contributes to the discussion in some positive manner, indicating how change might occur. Indeed, that is often the case, yet moments arise when the TDS gets so caught up in its own clever retorts to others they fail to reflect on their own culpability. Hart and Hartelius are especially critical of such hypocritical posturing that makes an essentially Marxist cynicism profitable (i.e., generating ad revenues) (263). To their criticism we might note Jane Blankenship, Edward Murphy, and Marie Rosenwasser’s description of one’s orientations (i.e., acceptance, rejection, or transitional frames) as both enabling us to gauge behaviors but also limiting us in our perspective (5). As a show that trades in smart-ass humor, they cannot help but see any embarrassing act as potential fodder rather than a potential moment for intellectual discourse.

With respect for Hart and Hartelius’s concern that TDS profits from its own smugness, I argue that TDS participates in a mode of journalism that enables the audience to create order out of a political process, which they cannot directly influence, by engaging in the public reprimand of errant political figures. Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger Aden stress that young audiences sometimes take part in a strategy of “being with while looking down”—joining with television satires in mocking the foibles of others—as a means to assert superiority over others and thereby feel control in their own lives (47). To that point Lance Holbert and associates finds that those who feel disconnected from politics have greater attachment to the satirical messages of TDS (34). In the case of TDS it seems the host/correspondents enable the audience to regain a sense of control in a political context in which citizens have limited, immediate impact upon legislative behavior. We can then describe TDS as a kind of “equipment for living,” which helps its audiences to recognize, process, and potentially resolve the inevitable guilt of our democratic republic (“Literature” 304). To that very point, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris find that though college-age students (i.e., TDS’s key demographic) come away from watching TDS more cynical toward politics, news media, and the US democratic process they also feel more confident in their ability to intellectually process politics. Because of TDS’s potential to train/empower its audiences Don Waisanen defends TDS as a moment of rhetorical criticism that brings attention to issues concerning public welfare (120).

The danger of a grotesque response in the context of helping audiences bring order to political chaos lies in the logical conclusion of a grotesque approach, nothing really changes save expelling an errant member for a behavior otherwise not remediated. The futility of the grotesque response reverberates with Hart and Hartelius’s frustration that TDS partakes in a deep cynicism of political activity without substantive contribution (267). Cynics or not, TDS does regularly call for their audience to the seek redemption or expulsion of political actors and systems. In a case like Craig’s, however, their response falls toward the grotesque, offering no direction for societal betterment. 

A Cynic’s Hypocritical Cry of Hypocrisy

TDS broadcast several segments devoted to mocking Craig in the weeks following the news of his arrest and guilty plea. The details of Craig’s case are well-suited to TDS as they involve the opportunity to both cry hypocrisy at a staunchly conservative US senator and make salacious jokes. Even Stewart admits stories like Craig’s “[are] the only reason the show exists” (“Trapped . . . Men”). Invoking a grotesque approach, TDS seeks to punish Craig for intolerance by forcing him to endure shouts of homosexuality, understood as a terrible slander to Craig. Attempting to use Craig’s intolerance against himself has the unfortunate effect of replicating a discourse of intolerance, the very discourse TDS otherwise finds so odoriferous. To sift through the complexities of Craig-based humor that cries homophobia while chuckling at homosexuality, I apply Burke’s notion of the grotesque, considering how TDS neither completely rejects nor accepts Craig and a homophobic mindset he is made to represent.

Larry Craig began his service in the US Senate in 1990, after a ten year stint in the US House of Representatives. A cursory examination of his record demonstrates a consistent pattern of conservative, Republican partisanship, including a stance against gay rights.[6] Much of the media attention to Craig’s arrest in the summer of 2007 stemmed from both the nature of the accusation and his record on issues affecting sexual orientation. As was widely reported when the story of his June arrest got out some two months after the episode, Craig allegedly signaled a request for sexual favors to an undercover officer in the neighboring stall of a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis International Airport. The basis of the charge alleges Craig tapped his toes suspiciously, touched feet with the officer, and gestured to the officer under the stall divider, all of which airport authorities maintain indicates a desire to sexually engage. Craig plead guilty in August to soliciting lewd conduct from an undercover officer and accepted a fine and probation sentence in lieu of a ten-day jail sentence. Soon thereafter, the news of the arrest and guilty plea became widespread. Craig then announced his intent to retract his guilty plea, which he explains he had only signed in the futile hope the matter would simply go away. To defend himself, Craig protests he is not nor ever has been homosexual and that the incident at the airport was a misunderstanding, in part, due to his naturally wide stance whilst sitting on the toilet that caused him to bump feet with the officer. In the following weeks the court denied Craig’s request to rescind his guilty plea, Craig announced his resignation from the US Senate, and Craig then retracted his statement of resignation vowing to fight the insinuations made against him.

The details above provided late-night comedy monologues with ample material for bawdy jokes. For their part, TDS broadcast five segments on three different nights based on the details of Craig’s case.[7] One would expect TDS to seize upon the Craig scandal not only for the seemingly inherent sexual humor but also the obvious contradictions of a politician standing in the way of gay rights legislation while pleading guilty to soliciting sex in a men’s room. Taking aim at Craig, TDS bases its jokes on accusations of hypocrisy and remarks about sexual confusion and homoerotic desire. Across the Craig segments on TDS we see a tangled logic in which TDS’s host, correspondents, and R. Kelly impersonators simultaneously base jokes on same-sex sexual acts—primarily anal sex—and Craig’s apparent sexual confusion while they punish him for the seeming hypocrisy of legislatively condemning homosexuality. Their response, mired in the grotesque frame, punishes Craig with ridicule for his homophobia as they themselves use queerness as a punch line.

The first of the Craig segments, “Trapped in the Men’s Room,” aired September 10, 2007, featuring the return of former TDS correspondent, Rob Corddry. The Corddry segment neatly captures the essence of TDS conflict between seeking queer tolerance yet describing it in such a manner that male-male sexual behavior to produce laughter. Seated in a restroom stall, Corddry reports that he has staked out a Minneapolis airport men’s room just as airport security had. Corddry justifies spending copious amounts of time in a bathroom stall explaining, “How else to stop tortured souls ashamed of their uncontrollable sexual longings from finding a few minutes of desperately needed victimless relief?” (“Trapped . . . Men”). The comment needles authorities for targeting homosexuality in their sting operation while also enforcing homoerotic desire as highly volatile. On the one hand Corddry defends “tortured souls,” those dealing with repressed homoerotic desire, suggesting the personal struggles individuals endure in a homophobic society. Also, Corddry’s description of the behavior as “victimless relief” implies that the acts may be tawdry but not menacing. Even still, in the joke lies the suggestion that homosexual desire, more so than heterosexual desire, prompts “relief” through any necessary means. As the case involves men it also signals the cultural understanding of men’s sexuality, rather than women’s, as a hydraulic force that always bursts forth despite efforts to bottle it.[8] Here, then, Craig and the homoeroticly driven men he is said to represent become over-sexed creatures who cannot control their sexual impulses, as Corddry describes them, men with “uncontrollable sexual longings.”  Corddry delivers his lines so wryly you cannot help but hear the insinuation of pathetic-ness that he supposes pent-up male-male desire causes.

Corddry goes on to score laughs at the men accused of cruising restrooms, without distinguishing between humor that merely chides from that which scorns. Explaining the alleged cruising ritual with witty flourish, Corddry explains foot tapping as a means of sexual solicitation:
Corddry: You tap your foot, the guy in the next stall taps back, you move your feet closer together, you swipe your hand underneath the stall, the other guy shows you his merchandise, and, boom, you’re off to Candy Land.
Stewart:  I’m sorry, “Candy Land”?
Corddry: Yes, “Candy Land,” Jon; it’s a gay thing. (“Trapped . . . Men”)

Corddry’s jokes exploit supposed tactics of solicitation as strangely codified and marking them as foreign to normative sexuality, taking one to “Candy Land,” a phrase only explained as a foreign experience: “It’s a gay thing.” The humor creates a division between heteronormative behaviors and the “improper” behaviors of anonymous encounters in public restrooms, which itself becomes confused with all same-sex sex acts, after all this behavior is “a gay thing”.  Here Corddry pokes fun at the practice as comical, ridiculing men who cruise restrooms but not actually indicating any means to process the situation, either to defend men in a homophobic society by laughing off the event as a lapse in judgment or condemn the behavior as symptomatic perversion of homoerotic desire. Unable to dismiss or denounce, Corddry’s response becomes neither comic nor burlesque but grotesque.

Lastly, Corddry dryly muses on the meanings of men’s shoes, providing taxonomy of men’s shoes as indicative of their sexual status in anonymous restroom trade. The humor used to describe solicitors’ footwear walks a delicate line, much like the grotesque perspective itself, of creating a xenophobic image of gay-male sexuality so inane that it crumples from lacking substance while still enunciating contempt for non-normative heterosexual practices. Speaking in the manner of a condescending anthropological study bordering on the zoological, Corddry classifies men soliciting anonymous sexual encounters according to their footwear: “It’s a complex language. Wingtips mean you’re a married man. Socks with sandals means this is your first time. . . . Anyone in those brightly colored plastic Crocs, that means anything goes; we’re talking hardcore ass to [bleep] stuff, scat play.” Again, the humor marks the men who participate in solicitation as odd, inhuman, and curious. We cannot be certain the extent to which Corddry marks all gay men as interested in such distinctively non-normative behavior as that involving feces.

Corddry’s contribution to TDS coverage of the Craig scandal provides a framework for the remaining four segments by seemingly wanting to defend non-heteronormative desires, or at least homosexuality, but seeing male-male sexuality as a moment for humor. The analysis of the “tortured” souls produces them as sexual aliens, with foreign customs and untamable impulses. In the spirit of satire we can see this as exploding the silliness of homophobic understandings of gay men as sexually bizarre and animal like, allowing us to reject sexual intolerance. Even still, in describing men’s homoerotic impulses as uncontrollable Corddry confuses the line between mocking a false, hurtful image of gay-male sexuality and endorsing it. Further, even the extent to which Corddry mocks the notion of gay men as foreigners as a means to hurt Craig by counting him among those sexual strangers, Corddry keeps the image alive for its hurtful function.

Where Corddry lampoons sexual solicitation in men’s restrooms, the remaining TDS segments use Craig’s seeming sexual confusion as a point of ridicule. The idea that Craig is gay and refuses to accept/admit so runs through the remaining four Craig segments. Positioning Craig as an enemy of the show for his stance against gay rights, TDS punishes Craig for homophobia by mocking him with the label “gay.” The explanation Craig offers in his defense to explain his restroom stall behaviors delivers laughs for their odd nature (e.g., he bumped feet with the officer because he has a wide stance whilst sitting on the toilet). To play up the sense of intrigue TDS includes in two segments, impersonators of hip-hop star R. Kelly—titled “Trapped in the Closet”—mimicking Kelly’s rap opera chronicling a web of sexual deceits and liaisons, including male bisexuality.[9] Taking Craig’s homosexuality as a foregone conclusion, Stewart mockingly protests Craig’s innocence to R. Kelly impersonator #1:

Stewart: He still says he’s not, nor has he ever been gay!
Kelly #2: [sings] That’s not how gay works. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

Between the two men, TDS dismisses any other explanation of Craig’s restroom behavior or sexual orientation. The audience laughter and applause that immediately follows the exchange only makes sense if they crave categorizing Craig as homosexual to punish him. Of course, the strategy here means to hoist Craig by his own petard, using something Craig finds objectionable (i.e., homosexuality) as a means to censure his intolerance. Because Craig announced he would not leave his seat as senator, after having promised he would do so if he could not retract his guilty plea, Stewart comments, “Hmmm. It’s almost as if he’s confused to who he is and what he wants” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). The jest further needles Craig for repressed homosexuality, an odd response for show with a pro-gay rights agenda even if punishing someone they call a “hard core, right wing, anti-gay GOP Senator” (“Trapped . . . Senate”).

This strategy continues when correspondent Samantha Bee’s discusses the Minnesota court’s dismissal of Craig’s request to rescind his guilty plea. As Bee dryly chides, “now that his petition of ‘not gay’ has been thrown out, it’s official: Larry Craig is gay in the eyes of the law” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). TDS does not confuse the ruling with Craig’s actual sexual identity—the exchange between Stewart and Bee overtly establishes as much.[10] Rather, the court ruling is taken as another opportunity to raise Craig’s escapade and mark the supposed hypocrisy of allegedly being gay while opposing gay rights. Recognizing the absurdity of what she suggests, Bee adds that the higher the court ruling against Craig the more intensely gay he will be rendered, a ludicrous notion for sure, but meant nonetheless to laugh at Craig for potentially being gay when he has spoken against gay rights.

The last of Craig’s public events of note concerning his arrest, an hour long interview with Matt Lauer broadcast in primetime on NBC, provides the richest fodder for TDS to make jokes about Craig denying his homosexuality. Stewart describes the interview by using clichés of gay-male behavior: “Senator Craig’s conversation with Matt Lauer, who’s totally cute but turned out to be kind of bitchy” (“Larry Craig’s”). Two other incidents from the same TDS episode further describe Craig as attracted to Lauer and unable to control his impulses. Cutting from video of Lauer listing earlier rumors suggesting Craig’s homosexuality, Stewart interrupts with his own items: “There was fleet week in 1985, your still active profile on, and what appears to be your loafer slowly traveling up my calf” (“Larry Craig’s”). The segment immediately following includes R. Kelly impersonator #2, who adds the musical flourish, “Face to face with Matt Lauer, the whole time wondering what he looks like in the shower” (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”). Both instances make Craig’s alleged homoeroticism its own joke. R. Kelly impersonator #2 takes other shots at Craig’s concerning his sexuality:

Craig: I know here, I’m innocent
[Cut back to TDS studio]
Kelly #2: [singing] Yes his heart is innocent, but his penis had to throw itself at the mercy of the court. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

In the post-Freudian tradition of sexual repression as a source of humor, this joke revives the theme that Craig merely refuses to admit to his natural, homoerotic implications while also laughing at the idea of uncontrollable impulses by referencing his penis having to beg for mercy. Further admonishing Craig for denying his assumed homosexuality, the joke continues:

Craig: I don’t agree with the lifestyle.  Have I viewed it as awful?  I viewed it as a lifestyle I don’t agree with.
[Cut back to TDS studio]
Kelly #2: [singing] I like the gay part without the lifestyle. (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 2”)

Here the humor reemphasizes why TDS targets Craig, to rebuke him for his anti-gay rights position by using the suggestion of his homosexuality as both a point of ridicule and inexplicable intolerance.

The series of jokes TDS offers in response to his arrest primarily chuckle at Craig for his potential homo/bisexuality. More than the salacious nature of the scandal, the alleged homosexual exploits of an anti-gay rights senator seems provokes TDS to respond. The response tendered, however, confuses TDS’s goals. Jokes which use homosexuality as their punch line hardly seem appropriate to advancing the gay rights TDS so regularly promotes. Burke reminds us that identifying the existence of one frame rather than another is “the qualitative matter of emphasis” (Attitudes 57). Reading the Craig affair, one can certainly find elements of the comic and burlesque poetic categories. Following a comic trajectory, responses to Craig would laugh at him for his mistakes and welcome him back into the fold once he demonstrates remorse. To do so, however, Craig would have to evoke a sense of sympathy, that his hypocrisy stems from foolishness rather than malice. Whether one laughs with or at the fool provides a useful litmus test for the comic frame, as Burke’s comedy seeks humanity and compassion (Olbrys 246). Giving Craig a burlesque treatment by reducing him to the absurd—admittedly a short order given the facts of his case—would toss Craig and his stigma toward homosexuality into the cold. Because we see nothing in him we can recognize as human, we would congratulate ourselves for eschewing from society an unsavory element.
The responses of TDS, however, neatly perform neither of the foregoing options. As such TDS adopts a transitional frame, the grotesque, in an attempt to reject the reprehensible though unable to divorce itself from current tradition, namely finding benefit in using homosexuality for humor’s sake. Ironically, Burke describes the grotesque frame—in one of his more Freudian moments—by discussing “the homosexual,” whom he finds navigates a conflict between allegiance to mother and father symbols that parallel the struggles of personal identity and the “public, historical situation,” better known as heteronormative and homophobic culture (61).[11] Though Burke’s dated use of the example has its issues, TDS’s depiction of Craig’s fits well in such a description, especially given Burke’s oft cited reminder that the “grotesque is not funny unless you are out of sympathy with it” (Attitudes 58). Stewart and the rest of TDS cast clearly have no sympathy for Craig, so his believed sexual conflict becomes a target of humor rather than compassion. The slights made against homosexuality in the process—contradictions to their own goals—demonstrate an uneven approach to TDS’s politics, an unclear allegiance to either advancing queer acceptance or boosting rating at any cost that further suggests their grotesqueness.

Whither Larry Craig (and The Daily Show)?

The case of Craig’s treatment by TDS provides the opportunity to discuss the grotesque’s knotty nature, the TDS’s role in political discourse, and potential responses to Craig that challenge his anti-gay rights position without assaulting homosexuality itself. Duncan describes the grotesque character as “beyond reason, a creature of demonic powers. He is mad, but not evil or comic. Our fear of madmen stems from being unable to communicate with them” (391). Unable or unwilling to provide a path for Craig to redeem himself, TDS attacks Craig at all angles. Such an approach to a homophobic figure like Craig means endorsing his own brand of disgust. As seen in TDS’s treatment of Craig, grotesque frames emerge when we find ourselves unable to fully divorce ourselves from that which repulses us. For TDS this means attempting to reject Craig’s homophobia even as they find it difficult to punish him without using homosexuality as a joke or slur. Burke notes that laughing at a grotesque figure “serves as an unintentional burlesque” (Attitudes 58). That said, by its nature, Burke also says the grotesque frame “uses a passive ‘frame of acceptance’” (emphasis original) (Attitudes 68). James Chesebro and David McMahan add that the grotesque upholds the “dominant social system” if by reminding us “what not to do” (422). For TDS this means adopting some of Craig’s prejudice even as he receives punishment for the same.

Especially given TDS’s pro-gay rights bent, the obvious question becomes, “Why use queerness as a punch line?” Craig’s outspoken homophobia presents gay-sex jokes as an ideal petard to hoist him, yet it is queerness that serves as the spear against homophobia in such a scenario. For this reason Hart and Hartelius criticize TDS’s cynicism as unproductive of anything greater than themselves, which is to say a (sometimes) cheap laugh: “Stewart’s performances become ends in themselves rather than ways of changing social or political realities” (266). As seen here, TDS creates tension between its own sense of decency (i.e., a consistent defense of the GLBTQ community) and the need to generate ad revenue through invoking laughter. The casual manner in which TDS takes up the Craig scandal, trading in a loose logic that sees fit to defend homosexuality through homophobia, misses the opportunity to suggest change and instead takes up cynicism as a kind of public service that identifies vice and makes those who can spot it feel a touch more superior. In so doing the show offers nothing to start a productive discussion of the dynamics of partisan politics, human sexuality, and how our responses to one another move discourse. Instead, the sides in the debate become more intractable.

In large part, TDS treats Craig in a manner consistent with treatment they customarily offer wayward politicians, biting cynicism. Of trained incapacities, Burke cautions that when “One adopts measures in keeping with his(sic) past training—and the very soundness of this training may lead him(sic) to adopt the wrong measures” (Permanence 10). For their part, TDS has a clear pattern of focusing on political figures’ “personal foibles and character flaws” (Baym 263). It seems reasonable to say that Stewart and his cast so regularly approach politicians, especially Republicans, with utter disdain that they merely paint Craig with the same brush as so many others, exploiting to its fullest any potential for ridicule. Unable or unwilling to make refined distinctions, we see in the Craig case TDS throwing out the baby with the bath water, as it were, scoffing at same-sex desire as much as hypocrisy. TDS’s strategy seems to result from placing the need to increase market share above its own principled politics of humane treatment for all. Rather than a moment for social progress Craig’s affair becomes grist for the mill.

At most, TDS only seems to offer the admonition that one ought to at least be consistent in their prejudices. Two different Craig-related segments cast hypocrisy as Craig’s underlying problem. When Stewart asks Bee why Craig will not leave the senate after saying he would do as much, she responds flatly, “Well, Jon, he’s still a politician. Just because he’s really, really gay doesn’t mean he’s gonna keep his word” (“Trapped . . . Senate”). Likewise, R. Kelly impersonator #1 sings the question, “Is there any mother f–[blank]–r leading the family values movement who doesn’t want to give dudes a [blank] job in the men’s room?” (“Trapped . . . Closet, Pt. 1”).[12] The criticism here sidesteps issues of sexuality as the issue but targets Craig’s hypocrisy as an advocate of the ineffable “family values” movement, which typically blocks gay rights, while also allegedly soliciting gay sex.

Falling back to the cynically accepted position “politicians lie,” may seem to offer little if anything new to the discussion, yet the move toward hypocrisy presents the greatest potential to reject Craig’s homosexual intolerance without denouncing homosexuality. Assaulting Craig as a hypocrite for blocking gay rights while allegedly engaging in same-sex liaisons suggests he should change his attitude toward homosexuality by looking to his own proclivities. In this strategy homosexuality escapes contempt, and gay rights becomes a matter of logical extension. In addition to TDS’s efforts at lampooning Craig, Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) October 6, 2007 broadcast included their own fake news sketch, “Weekend Update,” in which anchors Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers engage in a segment called “Really!?!: with Seth and Amy,” reciting facts of a case with patented incredulity: “Really!?!” To Craig they offer the following shaming:

Poehler: You know, I’m not creeped out that you tried to have gay sex in an airport bathroom; I’m creeped out that you tried to have any sex in an airport bathroom. I don’t even like going to the bathroom in an airport bathroom. I mean, really!?!
Meyers: Really!?! And, really, you oppose gay marriage. What, you think marriage takes the sizzle out of it? I mean really!?! Or are you just afraid that if gay marriage is legalized, there will be fewer single gay guys trying to have sex in airport bathrooms? I mean, really!?!
Poehler: So, in conclusion, you’re gay but a married Republican; you’re gonna vote for anti-gay legislation, but you solicit gay sex in an airport bathroom. Wow, you do have a wide stance. (“Weekend”)

SNL’s response to Craig’s problems, like the latter examples from TDS, reprimands Craig for hypocrisy. More than a mere attack on a politician as untrustworthy, this particular case of hypocrisy demonstrates the unnecessary and unjustifiable nature of anti-gay rights legislation. Showing that even the very people who denounce homosexuality—as Craig, himself, did during his scandal—find themselves engaging in non-heterosexual acts proves the need for accepting all sexual orientations as natural.[13] This particular moment extends the promise for Craig to accept homosexuals and his own potential homosexuality.

As a case of delicious irony/hypocrisy, TDS enjoys that Craig may have solicited sex in a men’s room. In defense of TDS’s humor, like the excerpts provided here, Bennett defends Stewart’s bitterness, arguing that “Cynicism, when properly targeted, can redress the corruption of a political order that is widely and perhaps wisely held suspect by the public” (280). Using grotesque responses, TDS exists in the pull between accepting a social order by redeeming the clown and lashing the buffoon to reject a flawed system. Not sure what to do with Craig they seek to punish his homophobia but play by the rules of his disgust, using the label “homosexual” against him. In reflection we learn about the limitations of a grotesque response and the necessary boundaries of pro-gay rights discourses in correcting those who oppose them. As subjects of TDS’s attention both Craig and gay rights—one, an object of scorn, the other, an object of significance—suffer under a grotesque treatment, trapped between the worlds of acceptance and rejection. As the grotesque’s madman, Craig must pay the penalty without having the chance for personal reformation or social transformation. Ground up in the machine of cynicism, he can do nothing right for anyone.

In their quest for retribution and salacious humor, TDS lends Craig no compassion as a man potentially struggling with his sexuality in an attempt to foster support for gay rights. Missing the opportunity for community change, TDS chooses to make jokes about homosexuality rather than defending it, as SNL does more pointedly in strictly condemning Craig for being insensitive to his own presumed nature. In SNL’s response we see both TDS’s missed opportunity for change and Craig’s lost chance for salvation. Following Burke’s admonition to redeem others whenever possible, a comic response focusing on Craig’s inability to accept himself would take queer acceptance as a norm Craig must be returned to. We get much of this in the response offered by SNL as they focus on the absurdity of denying the naturalness of homosexuality that seems so plain to them. Surely a change in TDS’s response to Craig would have no sizeable impact on the current status of gay rights, yet it would have contributed to framing the broader social discourse on homosexuality. The challenge for Larry Craig, TDS, and gay rights is for each to shrug off the stigma attached to homosexuality. Unfortunately, for Craig and gay rights, a grotesque response only serves to maintain the status quo while claiming more casualties. Cheree Carlson reminds us that the use of humor can only effect change when we have a path out of our current distress (“Limitations” 319). As a means for TDS to salvage its place in political discourse and foster gay rights, the show’s comedy will have to become more . . . comic.

* C. Wesley Buerkle (PhD, Louisiana State University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at East Tennessee State University. The author wishes to thank Christian Izaguirre for his research assistance and David Cecil for his support to keep the project on track. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Southern States Communication Association in Savannah, GA, April 2008.


1. A small sample alone includes three segments from the year preceding the Craig scandal. On July 17, 2007, TDS mocks James Holsinger, a US Surgeon General nominee, for writing a document that attempts a “scientific basis for [his] irrational discomfort around gay people” by referencing the names of pipe fittings (i.e., male and female) as a universalized imperative against homosexuality (“You have”). A segment from March 19, 2007 giggles over the strategies used by sexual re-orientation courses, including men cuddling each other and sleep tapes that encourage “you enjoy ejaculating in a woman’s vagina” (“Diagnosis”). TDS also ridicules the military on September 18, 2006 for admitting “the old, delinquent [convicted criminals], and borderline [mentally] retarded” but not homosexuals (“Tangled”).

2. Minimally we see this in Burke’s “Freud and Analysis of Poetry.”

3. In comparison to these Kaylor and Smith and Johnston both use the frames to sort political messages without deeper consideration of the implications of these choices.

4. Of those listed here, only Olbrys provides a discussion of any depth on the grotesque frame, the others make brief references.

5. The National Annenberg Election Survey also finds that TDS viewers are more politically aware and consume more news content than the general public, suggesting that the TDS may both attract more politically educated viewers and provide them with benefit of the same. Additionally, Brewer and Marquardt document that TDS frequently discusses political issues of a domestic and international nature suggesting that the program is more substance than the show lets on.

6. Specifically, Craig twice voted against expanding hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation (2000; 2002), supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (2006), voted to prohibit same-sex marriage (1996), and voted against prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation (1996).

7. TDS broadcast two segments on 10 Sep. 2007 (“Trapped in the Men’s Room” and “Trapped in the Closet, Pt. 1”), one segment on 8 Oct. 2007 (“Trapped in the Senate”), and two segments on 17 Oct. 2007 (“Larry Craig's Matt Lauer Interview” and “Trapped in the Closet, Pt. 2”).

8. Understanding sexuality using a hydraulic model implies that sexual desire exists as a material force that increases and builds in pressure when damned up or that can be reduced through channeling to other outlets. For a discussion of a break from such a model see Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, esp. 103.

9. Kelly, himself, was accused of sexual misconduct, and ultimately acquitted, for allegedly having sex with an underage woman and videotaping the event, which included the male urinating on the female.

10. In their exchange Stewart, acting as the straight man, corrects Bee, who accuses Stewart of being naïve.

11. Salvaging insight from Burke’s psychoanalysis of homosexuality, we see a description of internalized homophobia, the experience of some queer identified persons who carry within themselves the vestiges of homophobia taught to them for many years (Fone 6).

12. This most likely refers to the scandal a year earlier in which Ted Haggard, a nationally known evangelical preacher, who became mired in a scandal involving drug use and an affair with a male prostitute.

13. Craig’s alleged men’s room behavior, itself, brings to light the assumptions implicit in our cultural understandings of human sexuality. Contemporary western practice describes sexual identity according to object affection (e.g., straight men desire women and gay men desire men). Many media outlets challenged Craig as untruthful as Craig insists he is straight, wanting to use potential evidence of male-male sexual contact as proof of his bi/homosexuality. Against the rigid categories defined by object affection, Michel Foucault offers the ancient Greek tradition of defining a person’s sexuality by its application: excessive or unnecessarily restrictive sexual practices defined the nature of the person not the sex of the person with whom they engaged (Foucault Use, 187-8). In the case of Craig, Foucault might encourage us to not see his personal identity as a matter of straight, gay, or bisexual but exemplification of the artificial divisions of sexuality entrenched during the Victorian era.

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