The "weeklong feud of the century" reached its climax Thursday night as Jon Stewart welcomed freshly minted nemesis Jim Cramer to "The Daily Show." Cramer, who hosts the CNBC show "Mad Money," had figured heavily in a "Daily Show" piece highlighting that network's poor track record on the financial apocalypse, an attack originally inspired by reporter Rick Santelli's diatribe against over-leveraged homeowners. ("If I only followed CNBC's advice," Stewart said then, "I'd have a million dollars today -- provided I'd started with $100 million.") When Cramer objected publicly to what he considered unfair treatment, Stewart and his writers, smelling comedy blood, turned their sights toward him. Or, as the host described it last night, "We threw some Boston cream pies at CNBC, you got a little, obviously, shmutz on your jacket from it, you took exception, and then we decided to hit you with pies."
Cramer throws actual pies on "Mad Money," a kind of over-excited video version of a drive-time radio show on which fans call up from an imaginary place called "Cramerica" to give him a "Boo-ya!" and ask what they should do with their money. The CNBC online store sells a talking Cramer bobblehead that screams "Buy! Buy! Buy!," "Sell! Sell! Sell!" and "Are you ready, Skee-daddy?"
The back-and-forth generated a lot of Web hits to the Comedy Central page and comments among the punditry, taking on a patina of "news" and turning a comic riff into a self-inflating media moment: "People on TV have talked about how much people on TV have talked about it," "Daily Show" announcer Drew Birns intoned with customary mock gravity at the opening of last night's show, which was being pitched like some WWE grudge match, excited certainly by memories of Stewart's 2004 dust-up with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of CNN's "Crossfire."
Stewart's point this time was much the same: that CNBC practiced irresponsible journalism while selling itself as a source of superior insight and information. "You should be buying things and accept that they're overvalued but accept that they're going to keep going higher," Cramer said in one of the clips Stewart had earlier hurled against him, noting, "I probably wouldn't have a problem with CNBC if Cramer's slogan was 'Cramer: He's right sometimes,' or 'Cramer: He's like a dartboard that talks.' "
Although Stewart took some care to separate Cramer personally from his larger attack on CNBC -- whose misrepresentation of the financial crisis as "some sort of crazy once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming" he called "disingenuous at best and criminal at worst" -- the net he was throwing was certainly meant to include him.
Earlier in the day, Cramer had appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show" and had admitted that he was "a little nervous" about going on "The Daily Show." "You should be nervous," Martha Stewart replied, and indeed there was something in his bearing last night that reminded one of a boy called before the school principal. Cramer is a star in his own world, but in the larger hierarchy of cable TV and pop-political culture, "The Daily Show" ranks higher than "Mad Money." And though he had told Martha Stewart earlier that "I'm going to have to fight back. I'm not a doormat," he came off as chastened, conciliatory, pleading and overwhelmed:
"I try really hard to make as many good calls as I can."
"I should do a better job."
"I wish I'd done a better job."
"I'm trying. I'm trying."
Jon Stewart had a home-court advantage, of course, as well as a few damning clips, not meant for broadcast, of Cramer describing, in a positive way, certain barely to not-even-barely legal things a hedge fund manager might do to work the market to his advantage. And he also had editorial control -- the interview that went out over the air was cut for time; Cramer comes off somewhat better in the complete exchange, which is available online. But what makes Stewart formidable is that he also has a passion greater than the irony in which it is often couched.
Cramer, who repeatedly characterized the illegal and merely immoral doings of the market as "shenanigans," tried to downplay his own importance: "I'm not Eric Sevareid, I'm not Edward R. Murrow. I'm a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business." Like Stewart, he said, he wanted his show to be "successful" and to "bring in younger people."
Stewart was having none of it. "I understand you want to make finance entertaining," he said, "but . . . you knew what the banks were doing and yet were touting it for months and months. . . . These guys were on a Sherman's march through their companies financed by our 401(k)s, and all the incentives for their companies were for short term . . . and they . . . walked away rich as hell. And you guys knew it was going on."
Closing the show, Stewart added, "I hope that was as uncomfortable to watch as it was to do."