Where to begin with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show? From a personal perspective, I remember the time before his tenure as host of The Daily Show, and it was a very different time. Yes, there was political satire, but it fell primarily into one of two varieties:
Toothless: Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, etc.
Cancelled: The Smothers Brothers, Dick Cavett, etc.
The one semi-exception was David Letterman, who over the years became more outspoken when calling out BS simply because his stature combined with his I-don’t-really-need-this-job-anymore attitude gave him latitude that few others had. But his was a variety show, and the political commentary was intermittent and brief.
For you youngsters who have always had The Daily Show around, it might be hard to imagine, but back in those days politicians were essentially untouchable, and were allowed to spout their BS without much of a challenge, except by their opponents who, by virtue of also being politicians, knew better than to lift the curtain and show the backstage tomfoolery involved in staging political theater.
If someone or something got too far out of hand, the ‘serious’ journalists would jump in (e.g. Woodward and Bernstein, 60 Minutes, etc.) and break the story, but the day-to-day flow of baloney went relatively unexamined by the average American.
But then along came Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. When Stewart took over as host he transformed the show into something that had never quite existed previously – a show dedicated to politics and humor, with a primary focus on clearly pointing out the enormous truckloads of BS that are the main ingredient in US (and global) politics.
Not only did the show x-ray politics, but it was also activist when it needed to be, such as when Stewart lobbied heavily for benefits for the 9/11 first-responders on the eve of a critical Congressional vote, and very likely changed the outcome of that vote through his actions. Stewart also acted to improve, every so slightly, the level of political discourse, such as when he went on CNN’s Crossfire, eviscerated the hosts over their ridiculous political-jousting theater, and then kept the heat on until the show faded into cancellation a few months later, with the head of CNN directly called out Jon’s criticisms as a factor.
But he was always self-deprecating, and quick to mock grandiose claims about the impact of his show. I think this was partly due to natural modesty, but also partly due to the fact that The Daily Show could only do what it did if it was ever the underdog. If he and the show had become full of their own power and began wielding it un-ironically they would have lost their edge.
Personally, I was familiar with Jon prior to The Daily Show primarily from his recurring appearances on The Larry Sanders Show, where he played a slightly fictionalized version of himself who was gunning to take over Larry’s show, to great effect. I mean, on Larry Sanders he stepped into one of the all-time great television shows filled with heavyweight talent in the prime of their show’s arc, and went toe to toe as if he were a natural – because, as it turns out, he was.
The good news is that Jon leaves us with an amazing legacy:
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – a brilliant show, where Oliver eschews the grind of a nightly show to produce a weekly show that delves more deeply into single issues. I was going to try to pick a favorite segment, but I can’t, just go watch them all (if you haven’t already).
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore – Larry was fantastic as a ‘reporter’ for The Daily Show, usually billed as ‘Senior Black Correspondent’. I haven’t seem much of his new show, but wouldn’t expect him to be any less effective than he was on The Daily Show.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – as we all probably know, Stephen Colbert is taking over the Late Show from retired David Letterman. The Colbert episodes have not yet begun to air, and The Late Show has traditionally been a variety show with only hints of politics. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does, and also think that his previous effort, The Colbert Report, was also a game-changer with him playing a 100% straight-faced parody of a rabid dogmatic in order to point out the foolishness of dogma.
The impact of The Daily Show goes beyond those three. Jon Stewart changed the DNA of politics. In the ‘good old days’, news programs had to adhere to what were known as the ‘Fairness Doctrine‘ and the ‘Equal Time Rule‘, which meant that if your news show got political, you had to be sure your provided all sides fairly and all candidates with equal air time.
Stop for a minute and think about that – it used to be the law of the land that news programs were required by law to provide a fair assessment of issues, and to provide equal air time to all legitimate candidates. The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987, and while the Equal Time rule is still in effect, it has so many exceptions that about the only thing it would apply to is if a network gave a candidate free air time to say and do whatever they wanted.
Within a decade of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine we ended up with the launch of Fox News, the eventual left-i-fication of MSNBC, and the splintering of ‘news’ into infotainment, politics, gore, scandal, celebrity gossip, and whatever else gave ratings, public good be damned.
But in that sea of crap, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show evolved to serve as a reliable narrator and commentator, separating the BFDs from the BS, while puncturing the inflated windbags of punditry. There are those who say the show had a liberal bias, and while I think it had a liberal sensibility I also think the show was fair in calling out BS wherever it was to be found.
I think the assessment of The Daily Show as a purely liberal platform came primarily from the fact that the show’s rise to popularity occurred during the Bush administration, when Republicans held all the power and led us into two controversial wars. In that situation, you’re going to spend 95% of your time going after those with the power, because while it’s fun to mock inept, powerless losers sometimes (which The Daily Show did regularly to the Democrats), it’s not a recipe for long-term success if it’s your primary focus.
I know The Daily Show will be coming back with a new host (Trevor Noah), but I know nothing about him and know that he’ll have to be amazing to get my attention. I hope he is, but he’s stepping into some very big shoes and I hope he has the right stuff.
So now it’s goodbye to Jon. For years the evening routine of my house included watching The Daily Show the vast majority of the time. Now there will have to be a change, and I don’t like change, especially when it’s changing something that couldn’t possibly be made better. Good night, Jon, I hope you take some time to relax from the grind, rest on your laurels, and reflect on your accomplishments. If you come back to the airwaves I’ll be sure to give you a look. #JonVoyage