How Jon Stewart Killed Comedy
This article originally appeared in The spectatorglobal edition of June 2021. Click here to subscribe.
Somewhere along the way, Jon Stewart found he could make stupid people laugh by smiling at Fox News clips – and the world has never been the same since. Stewart, who anchored The daily show Until 2015, we are often remembered as the ancestor of a long line of left-wing topical comedians, from Stephen Colbert to John Oliver to Samantha Bee. Yet before that he was something else: television’s most gloriously subversive personality.
The daily showThe height of the era came at the turn of the century, just after Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn. His approach at the time was not so much militant as satirical, singing about the company’s news and thus exposing its stupidities and hypocrisies. The daily show It was comedy done the hard way, not partisan dunks, but biting caricature and points made by mimicry. Hooking up back then was feeling like you were at the back of a 1990s classroom, hanging out with a group of slackers dressed ironically in costumes to make fun of the professor.
So what happened? Stewart, like so many artists of his day, was led around the curve by the Bush administration. The show had always tipped to the left, but as the 2000s wore on it was less about mocking the news than yelling at it. Stewart’s solo segments have been expanded; he became obsessed with Fox News of which he often broadcast clips out of context. A brain-dead studio audience giggled and reacted myoclonically to everything he said. Democrats hailed the show as brilliant; in fact, it had become predictable and out of date.
For those of us who grew up with it, The daily showThe deterioration of the situation was seen as a real cultural loss. The problem was not that Stewart had become a leading progressive voice. It was that he had become an expert, another voice screaming into the void. Punditry is my job and there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But in the screaming crowd of today’s media landscape, there is nothing daring or rebellious about it either. There aren’t even any barriers to entry: a 10-year-old can finish their snack, log on to Twitter, and start calling the president ac ** t. It is the most saturated market in the world, even if we are thirsty for real information.
So it’s no surprise that Stewart is giving way to not just one successor, but around four million of them. Today his heirs, who mimic both his approach and his policies, are spread across virtually every television network. The “ funnyman as newsreader ” shtick dates back to well before Stewart – Mort Sahl, SNLWeekend Update – But today it has become so ubiquitous that it looks like news propaganda. Stephen Colbert puts his hands in his pockets and mugs Donald Trump. John Oliver reads Vox items off the teleprompter and intersperse them with F bombs. Samantha Bee is so nervous as sometimes even called racist republicans. Jordan Klepper covers topical issues, and although he never did a segment on mercy killings, his show recently suffered one.
None of these people are interesting in the sense of the word. What they are is partisan comfort food. Are you worried that the morons on the right are on the march again? Tune in tonight and find out why they’re as ridiculous as they were yesterday! Why take your political opponents seriously when they can be so easily destroyed by a facial expression? Why bother to wrestle with their arguments when a video clip fresh out of the assembly shop shows that they own themselves? I’m not saying the conservative side doesn’t do this – they do, and often less intelligently than Samantha Bee. What I’m saying is if you succumb to this kind of therapeutic incuriosity, one day you might wake up and find that the morons on the right have won. Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States as you chuckle at him from the couch.
There is also the problem, as our Liberal friends would say, of power dynamics. At least when Stewart was fighting the Bush administration, you could argue that liberalism was a minority persuasion in America. Today the left is a political and cultural heavyweight, dominating the elected federal government, the civil service, the mainstream press, Hollywood, Big Tech, increasingly even the corporate world. It is our new civic religion, which has transformed its actors into something like high priests, irritating its principles and ridiculing its apostates. All the old rules of satire – do not knock, afflict the comfortable – amount to a generally anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic state of mind. Yet Stewart’s impersonators exist only to bolster existing authority while claiming they have no authority at all.
The poverty of this act can be seen with the current host of The daily show, Trevor Noah. Noah has a reputation for not being funny, but I’ve always found him pleasant enough and more sensitive than Stewart ever was. What it is not is remotely transgressive. His Daily show, even more than Stewart’s, looks like some sort of Zoom-based awakening consultancy, with denunciations aimed at all the usual right-wing targets. Since COVID, it has even instituted a name change, The daily show of social distance (Ha Ha!), its logo the Statue of Liberty wearing a mask.
I’m not saying Noah should promulgate vaccine skepticism (actually, please don’t do that). It’s just that what he says is what everyone else says. The daily showThe middle finger of the old days to the powerful has been lowered.
Now contrast with what might be my all time old favorite Daily show segment. It was a 2001 roundtable on the then popular stunt show Donkey. The three experts – a pregnant civil libertarian, a media watchdog who pulverizes a bear mass in her own eyes to demonstrate Donkeytrumps him, and a communications professor who won’t stop playing a violent music video to show just how violent television is, played by Nancy Walls, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert respectively – perfectly illustrate the absurdity of this kind of story. The bit works because it’s not a partisan cry, because it makes fun of something we all recognize by embodying it and making us laugh.
It would be nice to have a show like that again, that understands that the medium was the message, that reflected the deeply silly ways we communicate with each other today. Alas, it’s long gone. Even comedians are experts now.
This article originally appeared in The spectatorglobal edition of June 2021.