Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why I'm Glad Jon Stewart Joined The Daily Show, And Why I'm Glad He's Leaving

So, last week, Jon Stewart announced that he is stepping down as the host of The Daily Show.

I was one of the early adopters of The Daily Show. When Comedy Central debuted the program in 1996, the state of news satire in America was pretty abysmal. You basically had Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, and...well, that was it. Sure, you had some attempts like Not Necessarily The News and That Was The Week That Was, but those were modest successes with a limited audience.

Being an avid consumer of current events back in the day, I ate it up. I wasn't a huge fan--Craig Kilborn, the original host, was kind of a smug prick, and the guests and format were a little too Comedy-Central-Centric. (Most guests were basically comedians who had Comedy Central shows.) Still, the writing was sharp enough and the genre so barren that it was still eminently watchable.

After Kilborn left and Stewart took over, the show revitalized itself. Sure, it still followed roughly the same format, but the attitude was different, the writing cleaner, the range of subjects broadened. It became a proper news satire source and not just a mash of comedy bits held together with dorky jokes about the news. Guests and topics no longer felt like they were simply vehicles for Comedy Central routines. And, most importantly, they cultivated what would end up being a dream team of writers and performers: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, and Ed Helms, to name a few, all of whom have gone on with successful careers. From about 1999 to 2004 or so, there was no greater example of satire on the airwaves than The Daily Show.

Unfortunately, around that time, something changed. I don't know if there was any one specific point in which it did, but if I had to choose it would be Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire. During this interview, Stewart called out hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as being bad for political discourse, calling them partisan hacks in a combative and uncomfortable segment. While some think of it as a brave calling out of the loud, obnoxious debate programs that permeated the air, others (like myself) feel it was a absurd for Stewart to do this on their program in the manner that he did. Clearly Stewart was there to be a comedian--since, you know, that's what he is and claimed to be--and when he used it to unexpectedly attack the hosts it was not only hypocritical but in poor taste. He was simultaneously acting as an expert on news discourse, and when they counter attacked he just claimed to be a comedian, apparently hoping that his comments would be taken seriously enough to have an impact, but not so serious that he had to accept responsibility as a journalist. Had Stewart been invited on to discuss the state of media, I think it would have worked out fine, but he chose instead to take the opportunity to make a childish ambush.

The entire problem stems from the fact that around 2004 or so Stewart transformed The Daily Show from something that was a satire of everything to a vehicle for commentary and ideology. Oh, don't get me wrong--good satire has the pleasant side effect of calling out the rich and powerful on their bullshit where traditional journalism can't. But two things converged to make the satire less effective. First, Stewart and the staff took to criticizing all other news outlets, and then when those outlets turned it around against them they claim that they're just a comedy show. You can't just say, "Oh, we are strictly a satirical organization whose sole purpose is to be funny and shouldn't be held to the same journalistic standards as the regular news, except for those times when we want to make an accusation, where we want you to treat us like an academic source."

And that's the biggest issue that I had with The Daily Show. They wanted the good stuff (being taken seriously as a organization when they critique people via satire) but not the bad (their news stories were biased, slanted, used cherry-picked statistics so they could make a funny point). Everybody kind of took The Daily Show's popularity as an excuse to make accusations that under any other circumstance would be the exact sort of thing The Daily Show would get angry about, and if they were criticized they would throw up their hands and say "Can't you tell this is all just a joke?"

There was a glimmer of hope after 2008. Even though I had long stopped watching The Daily Show by that point, I always defended it. Good satire pokes fun at the powerful and influential, and during the height of its run the people in power were the Republicans. It only made sense that their targets would be ideologically slanted. But when the Democrats were ushered into power--mildly in 2006 and then fully in 2008--it was clear that The Daily Show wasn't ready to move on. Old, stale jokes from previous election cycles were trotted out, dusted up, and shook at towards the audience, hoping that they wouldn't notice that the writers couldn't bring themselves to make fun of the party and ideology they so clearly adored. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on, satire is most effective when you can make fun of both sides. Otherwise, it's just ideological masturbation. When you're creatively bankrupt enough to not be able to make fun of your own side, the effectiveness of your satire is greatly diminished. Oh, sure, they still made fun of Democrats once in a while; I'm not saying that the show became a relentless anti-conservative machine. But it was clear that the satire against their preferred party was weak, mute, and without bite.

Exhibit A for this sort of thing would be Last Week Tonight, a similar show on HBO starring former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. It's almost like they took everything that was wrong with The Daily Show and magnified it--every story is a hypersensationalized distortion of any sort of reality. The stats are all skewed, the framing of each issue is slanted to an absurd degree, and the delivery is wrapped up in a sort of douchey faux-intellectual mock horror. You know that guy who goes to college for the first time and suddenly discovered politics and then uses every single logical fallacy in the book to prove that he's right? That's exactly what Last Week Tonight feels like. It almost feels like a satire of satire news shows, except that no one is in on the joke.

Ultimately, I think it's a good thing that Stewart is leaving. I'm glad he did what he did, but it was clear a long time ago that satire has progressed beyond stale Bush jokes and getting upset about the Tea Party, yet Stewart is still sitting in the back corner table wailing away about it while the rest of the world has moved on. He brought a fresh perspective into a vast wasteland of a genre, but it's time now for someone else to do the same to him.

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