For the past few years, my weekday morning routine was the same; I would get my breakfast, sit in The Beast (my massive and beloved recliner), and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recorded from the previous evening’s broadcast. I wouldn’t say that it’s been anything close to my main source of news or information. I watched it for one excellent reason; it’s been consistently, marvelously funny. It’s really kind of a miracle. Stand-up comedians hone their acts for months, then repeat them endlessly, like a politician does with his/her stump speech. But four nights a week, 22 minutes a night, Jon Stewart brought the funny. What an extraordinary achievement.
There has been, of course, a lot of ink spilled of late about the Meaning of Jon Stewart, or his Impact, or his Importance. What people haven’t done as successfully is describe exactly what he did. David Letterman ended his long late night reign recently, without anyone really noticing what his show was about; the nightly deconstruction of the cult of celebrity. By the same token, Jon Stewart’s show was about the deconstruction of television news. He wasn’t Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw; he parodied them. He paid attention. He was on to their tricks. Like every great satirist, he loved deflating pretention and self-importance. Above all, he had a finely tuned eye for BS. In fact, in a lot of ways, BS was his subject. His final monologue on the show was a short treatise, in fact, on BS, on the three types of BS he’d noticed, and how they functioned, every night, on the news.
I suppose it’s fair to admit that he was and is a liberal, and that Fox News was a favorite target of his humor. It would not be fair, or accurate, to say that his show was an all-out assault on conservatism, however. He took on CNN with every bit as much enthusiasm, and if he didn’t make fun of old-media dinosaurs like the evening news broadcasts on CBS or NBC or ABC, it’s only because they’re not on as much. The 24-hour news cycle has provided a fertile pasture for BS to proliferate.
No, what Jon found offensive about conservatism doesn’t seem to be serious policy recommendations, but the selling of policy, the marketing of politicians. That’s where the richest troves of BS were buried; both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have described themselves as ‘turd miners,’ and I think that’s crude but accurate. Bloviating windbags, of either party, were rich material for a comedian as astute as Jon Stewart, and he was as willing to make fun of Democrats as he was Republicans. His political agenda, if he had one, was for government to work, for policies that helped people who needed it. His two greatest campaigns were for extra funds to help 9/11 first responders, and for VA reform, for more money to help our wounded and hurting veterans.
Stewart’s Daily Show had two other features. First were his ever-changing cadre of correspondents, gifted comedians in their own right, who he would send out to ‘cover stories.’ Often this meant giving people with truly amazing views enough rope to hang themselves. The DS staff would find some local controversy and cover it; interview the participants. Sometimes, they’d pretend to take one side or another (usually the crazier side), in order to elicit a response. My wife and I would watch these pieces, and shake our heads in amazement that anyone would agree to be interviewed by anyone from the Daily Show. But often other news organizations would interview DS subjects after the shows in which they were featured had aired, and generally the folks would say they’d been treated fairly. They had been given an opportunity to explain themselves to a national audience, and they’d been quoted accurately.
You might say that those interview sequences were mean-spirited. After all, the point was to provide what seemed to be insane people a platform for them to air views. But, real news organizations do that too. Again, the point was to deconstruct mainstream news programs. On a news show, it isn’t particularly unusual to highlight some controversial issue by focusing on nuttiest fringe views imaginable. That’s what’s called ‘balance.’ So if a major network is doing a show about the US/Mexico border, they’ll interview some armed civilian vigilante type, out there with his shotgun and flashlight looking for ‘illegals.’ Controversy sells. (I also love how the various correspondents were given fancy titles: ‘senior foreign correspondent’).
It’s also worth noting, BTW, the subsequent careers of Daily Show correspondents. Steve Carell is a major movie star. Ed Helms and Rob Corddry are in-demand character actors. Stephen Colbert will replace Letterman at NBC, and Larry Wilmore and John Oliver have their own spin-off shows. If the Daily Show was a parody of CBS News, The Colbert Report was a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Larry Wilmore’s show hasn’t quite found its voice yet, but looks a lot like those Sunday news shows, like This Week on ABC, expecially with Wilmore’s panel discussion feature. John Oliver’s show on HBO is the best of them all; a parody of 60 Minutes, really, but substantive enough to straddle that fine line between doing the news and making fun of it.
The final part of any Daily Show episode was the interviews, and to some extent, it’s late night formulaic, the place where the show drops its news focus and asks movie stars about their latest projects. But Jon Stewart transformed that part of the show as well. He did remarkably incisive interviews with major political figures, regularly sparring with Mike Huckaby and John McCain. President Obama was on at least three times that I can remember. Best of all, Jon loved authors. He often found interesting books, usually about either history or public policy, and interview their authors. I can’t tell you how many books I bought or checked out from the library and read after seeing their authors on the Daily Show. At least thirty; probably more. He loved engaging with smart people who had interesting things to say.
In fact, if Fox News eventually wore him down (he said watching that network was the hardest part of his job, and led to his retirement), then the authors and books he featured invigorated him. By the same token, that’s my final takeaway from the end of this 16 year era. Jon Stewart represented incisive wit and fury and even optimism in a time when our politics seems irretrievably broken. Television news is drowning in BS, as is public life generally. But the world is also a place where smart, passionate, informed people can come and tell you about the great book they just wrote. I wish Jon well, and I’m going to miss him terribly. And hope the new guy, Trevor Noah, does well. Those are huge shoes to fill.