I have been a big fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since before it was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Even back in the late ’90s, when Craig Kilborn was applying his (in my opinion, underrated) fratboy enthusiasm to what then billed itself as “the most important television program ever,” I was a loyal near-nightly viewer, and though I liked Kilborn’s version just fine, the show clearly improved when Stewart took the helm.
The political commentary got sharper, the show got funnier, the correspondents were nearly all replaced with better correspondents, and just when it seemed to have hit top gear in its coverage of the 2000 election, the Florida recounts, followed by the second Bush administration, made the show absolutely essential for the next — get ready to feel old — 13 years (!!!!!).
Correspondents have come and gone. Some (Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms) seemed irreplaceable, until they were replaced by the likes of Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and my new favorite, Jessica Williams. The loss of the all-time greatest correspondent, Stephen Colbert, seemed like a death blow, until his show turned out to be at least as good (if not better) than the one that spawned it. Through it all, Jon Stewart has been the mainstay, keeping the show’s sensibility on course and his name on the masthead. In every way, it is his show. It is as great as it is because he made it that way.
So it’s been very strange to watch Senior British Correspondent John Oliver hosting The Daily Show with Jon Stewart all summer, with his last show airing tonight — kind of like watching another man getting it on with your actually maybe that’s a bad analogy. It’s even stranger to feel like maybe Stewart, who’s been in the Middle East directing a movie, ought to stay away a little longer. What’s the rush, Jon? Decompress a little! Don’t work so hard! Take a month or two and hang out with your kids. Because the truth is, I’ve been enjoying The Daily Show with Jon Stewart John Oliver far more than I expected — more, in fact, than I’ve enjoyed it in recent memory.
This is not to say the show was bad with Stewart. I still watched it every day, still laughed at it, still liked it, still fantasized about working there. But Oliver’s interim tenure has underlined something I’ve been feeling for several years.
Jon Stewart’s style, as a performer, is very laid back, similar to the wiseass in the back of the classroom: literally leaning back in the chair, rarely raising his voice, chiefly sarcastic, shooting rhetorical spitballs at the teacher. I don’t have anything against this approach, since I myself adopted it with gusto when I was in school, but as I learned (and learned, and learned again) people can only listen to that kind of voice for so long before it gets annoying. Jon Stewart is so much better at it than me, or really anyone ever, that he’s not gotten annoying (unless you work at a 24-hour news network) but his approach is starting to suffer in comparison to his two protegés: Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.
Whereas Stewart’s show is all about laid-back, above-it-all, you-won’t-catch-me-caring-or-trying-all-that-hard Gen-X detachment, Stephen Colbert’s is all about projecting energy, sitting forward in the seat, whoo-ing and smiling and soaking up the crowd’s energy — “Stee-phen! Stee-phen! Stee-phen!” — and giving it back to them with interest. This is largely just part of the central cult-of-personality conceit of the show, but it’s also somewhat at odds with it: Colbert’s character is a right-wing blowhard, and you don’t see a lot of right-wing blowhards whooping it up or dancing with Bryan Cranston in rollerskates.
It’s just in Colbert’s nature, as a performer, to be exuberant, and it makes his show, for me, the more engaging, more interesting, and generally more entertaining show.
(Interestingly, Colbert’s approach is much closer to Craig Kilborn’s than Jon Stewart’s. Nobody seemed to cotton to Kilborn when he left The Daily Show to take the post-Letterman slot on The Late Late Show, but I loved his confidence, his energy, and the general lack of self-loathing — so often the underpinning of comedy. He hyped the British singer Dido’s upcoming appearance on the show every night for a month, even though no one knew who she was, and served as his own announcer, introducing himself from behind the curtain before taking the stage, and beginning every show by telling the audience he was in a great mood. More than a little similarity there to Colbert.)
Filling in for Stewart on his sabbatical from The Daily Show, John Oliver is kind of splitting the difference between the two approaches: like Stewart, he’s still shooting spitballs from the back of the classroom, but like Colbert, he’s leaning forward to do it. Where Stewart tends to tie up an opening headline segment about this or that absurd government failure/inefficiency/hypocrisy with a weary, resigned, “We’ll be right back,” Oliver’s tone is more incredulous, like he’s reporting on the antics of drunken fratboys who will surely sober up sooner or later.
In any case, the infusion of fresh energy has been a great thing for The Daily Show, and I’m shocked to realize I’d have no complaints if Stewart never came back at all.
One of my favorite story arcs on one of my favorite shows ever, The Larry Sanders Show, concerned Garry Shandling’s fictional talk show host suspecting that his job is about to be stolen by a young upstart filling in while he’s on vacation, prompting him to work harder and rededicate himself to his show (but not before trying to sabotage the substitute host) . The young upstart was played by Jon Stewart.
Hopefully, Stewart will come back from his break re-energized and raring to prove his show is still his show. Or maybe he’ll come back and realize he’s bored and wants to move on to something else and hand the show off to Oliver at the end of his current contract. What these last 8 weeks have proved is that, either way, we’re in good hands.