The Constitution walks into a bar
Chico State celebrates Constitution Day with laughs from homegrown Daily Show writer
“People of Chico, I bear a message of dire warning,” Jason Ross began his Constitution Day address at the Bell Memorial Union last Friday (Sept. 14). “The Constitution of the United States is in serious peril—not from people who would topple it, but from those who would overpraise it.
“At Tea Party rallies people literally cheer for the Constitution as if it can hear them. Congressmen are prone to pulling it from their breast pocket and waving it in the air like Bibles, and though I’d rather they wave the Constitution than the Bible, do we have to wave anything. Can’t we just, maybe … wave?”
It may seem like a less than respectful way to salute the Constitution, but it’s in keeping with Ross’ humor and his current job. The native Chicoan and former CN&R writer and arts editor has been a staff writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2002. During his tenure there, the show, known for its biting satire, has won six Emmys.
As Chico State political-science professor Alan Gibson noted in his introduction to Ross’ talk, since 2004 publicly funded learning institutions have been required to provide instruction on the meaning and history of the Constitution near the anniversary of its signing on Sept. 17, 1787. Gibson noted that it is an unfunded mandate, leaving these institutions to cover the costs without federal help.
Ross played upon this fact early in his address: “I can’t help but think this isn’t quite what Thomas Jefferson had in mind. It’s sort of a wash. Congress, the Constitution’s creation, is ordering a celebration of the very document that gives it any power to order anything at all, leading us back where we started, minus the speaking fees.”
Of the document itself, Ross joked that any attempts to read it don’t live up to the hype (“Everything between the Preamble and the First Amendment is a total snoozefest” and “It contains very little poetry, and absolutely zero secret maps to our national treasure”) before driving home the point of his diatribe.
“We have to stop patting ourselves on the back for granting ourselves these freedoms, and start judging ourselves by what we choose to do with them.
“Our homes are our castles, and what did we do? We cashed in our equity to buy his and her matching jet skis and accidently destroyed the world economy. Good job, America.”
Ross also drew on his childhood in Chico as a source for laughs: “I grew up in Chico in the 1970s and ’80s, so for most of my formative years this is what I thought college was like. Think about that.”
He told a story about his first time seeing a keg carried by two young men on bikes and asking his mother (his parents, Bob and Sharon Ross, are both retired Chico State professors) why they needed a whole barrel of beer. “Because it’s finals week,” she replied.
Ross also reminisced about Pioneer Days, calling them “the quaintest, most wholesome piece of Americana I have ever been a part of. So I was just as surprised as anyone when I got a little older and learned that basically the whole school was on a cocaine binge of Scarface proportions and had been for decades.”
Ross also spoke a good deal about his job, and the role of satire in society, surmising that “humor is an evolutionary adaptation by which the species homosapiens manages not to murder our own children.
“I won’t regale you today with the noble history of classical satire for two reasons,” he continued. “One, it would take all night, and two, I don’t—what’s the word—‘know’ anything about it.
“But here’s the great thing about working in a business like this,” he said. “I don’t have to know anything about Aristophanes to have learned from Aristophanes, because I did learn satire from Jon Stewart, who learned satire from David Letterman, who learned satire from the Smothers Brothers, who learned satire from Red Skelton, who learned satire from vaudeville, all the way back through the centuries until you get to an Aristophanes.”
After his address, Ross fielded questions from the audience ranging from whether The Daily Show’s satire is dangerous (“My short answer is ‘no’ ”) to a description of his workday, from 9:30 a.m. meetings through rigorous rewrites up until show time. One young man asked for advice to students entering the workforce.
“There are no more jobs,” Ross quipped. “The last one got taken three days ago. It was in Biloxi, Miss., and some guy showed up right before they opened, which isn’t really fair, right, and now it’s gone.”
He did set aside the jokes to offer some insight into his own success: “When I decided not to do journalism anymore and to try to do comedy, it was a huge risk for me. I had a career already going, and I was going to turn down a job, shift gears and try for something that was very difficult. I would recommend that all of you at some point take a huge risk.
“Whether it pays off or not, you will be grateful you did it. Otherwise, you’ll always wonder, ‘What would have happened if?’ ”