- Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 256
Think back to the heady days of 2004-2005, when the entire country was embroiled in (pre- and post-) election politics, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had suddenly become an important political and cultural entity, due in no small part to Stewart’s very public flogging of Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on Crossfire. Stewart and Colbert’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear drew just under a quarter-million attendees, so one can hardly say that the entity has diminished in the intervening years, but there was something particularly novel about Jon Stewart et al. at that point that made their leap from TV to print easy and popular. America (The Book) was a wild success, and so it should have been: it was a well-executed parody of a children’s American history textbook, pointedly satirical and wickedly funny.
Five years later, the same crew (more or less) gives us Earth (The Book), evidently a scaled-up version of the same concept, written as a communique to an alien race that stumbles onto our planet long after we’ve obliterated ourselves.
One cannot talk about satirical works of this sort without inevitably mentioning The Onion, or more specifically its books like Our Dumb World. The latter is more free with its tone, and also has higher production values—I noticed no fewer than two typos in Earth (The Book), which I suppose sounds pedantic until you remember that it’s only 256 pages and most of them are pictures. What’s more, Our Dumb World knew its purpose—i.e. a satirical atlas—and to some extent, so did America (The Book)—i.e. a satirical social studies textbook—but Earth (The Book) is suddenly a book not directly satirizing a known form, and therefore its execution is somewhat more vague and correspondingly less funny. Covering topics from continents to human sexuality to television, the book reminds me of a pinball machine, loud and noisy with bright flashes and distracting noises and so much apparently unrelated sensory output that it prevents you from watching the ball itself; one wouldn’t imagine a lack of focus to be a killer problem in a slapstick comedy book, but such is the case.
Part of the issue may be that its authors forget how smart they really are. Earth (The Book) is a discontinuous series of vignettes, covering disparate topics, and there didn’t seem to be much drive for consistency: some humor is low-brow, some is up to Daily Show standards, and some simply isn’t very funny. Nor is the narrator represented reliably; sometimes he’s perched on a soapbox, sometimes he’s skewering himself, and sometimes he’s replaced himself with Photoshopped images. Perhaps the problem simply stems from the fact that these are Daily Show writers, and the show is a largely political show, and so the pairing worked well in the first book, but led to a sloppy mess in the sequel. I’m not particularly funny, myself, and I sympathize: being told to write a book about everything on Earth that is consistently funny—and not just funny, but funny to a standard which people have come to expect from The Daily Show or its imprimatur—is not simply daunting, but probably impossible. The book could have used a narrowing of its scope, in the same way that The Onion so successfully writes relatively specific books using specific forms.
I appear to be savaging Earth (The Book), which I may be relative to its predecessor; the disparity is apparent for reasons I have already explained. Does this make the book bad or unreadable? Hardly. Commercially, will the book be a success? Yes: Jon Stewart is still a hot commodity and the book features his face and some fraction of his authorship (I think). Is the book fun to read? Sure, though the abundance of caption text can be a bit difficult on old eyes. Does it have the same je ne sais quoi as America (The Book)? I don’t think so, and I don’t believe it will be remembered with quite the same reverence, on the day when such things are documented.