I love The Daily Show. I’ve always loved The Daily Show. I have been watching it faithfully since Craig Kilborn was smashing heads with his “5 Questions” segment (and I still think that version of the show was pretty funny). I have witnessed the show at its highest highs (when Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell were correspondents) and its lowest lows (the Mo Rocca years, admittedly concurrent the Carell/Colbert years — I just find Mo Rocca painfully unfunny and worse, oddly smug about it. Am I digressing?). It’s had up-cycles and down-cycles and I have stuck with it through them all.
From around the time of the debacle of the 2000 election recount, The Daily Show became an indispensible part of my life, of how I consume news, of how I interpret it. And for several years I became very focused on trying to get a job there as a writer, and it still hurts that I wasn’t able to make it happen.
But it seems that they may be hiring again soon, because after 16 years hosting Jon Stewart is leaving the show, so maybe I ought to dust off those packets of Iraq War and John McCain jokes and see if I can’t get on staff at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
It’s no real surprise that Jon Stewart is leaving the show. He has seemed considerably less engaged, even borderline bored, for a few years now. His writing staff is still the best on television, he’s still surrounded by excellent correspondents, and they still do a great job of pointing out the everyday hypocrisies that politicians and the media engage in while making the whole thing hilarious, rather than depressing.
But Stewart himself is listless, detached. Maybe he’s depressed that his movie flopped. Maybe he regrets not taking the Big Chair at CBS, now that his protegé Stephen Colbert has it. Maybe he’s bummed that his other protegé John Oliver is doing a better version of his show on HBO as a direct result of having taken a summer off to make that movie. Maybe he’s just bored, as anyone would be after doing the same thing for 16 years.
Or maybe it’s a sense that it’s not working. I don’t mean that the show doesn’t work in terms of being effective comedy, because even with Stewart phoning it in for the last few years the show is still more or less meeting the high bar that it set in the early 2000s (if not soaring over it, as it did throughout Bush’s second term). I mean that the show’s unstated mission — to use comedy to neutralize the shrill propaganda machine at Fox News and maybe even win a few crazy uncles back over to the side of facts and logic and science and rational planning — isn’t working.
If anything, the crazy uncles are farther out of reach than ever; Fox News’ ratings remain the highest in the 24-hour news business, and have for the last 14 years. Just last month, a poll found that it’s still the most trusted news source in America. The GOP just took full control of Congress in last year’s midterms and are a real threat to take the White House. If the highly incisive, broadly contextualized, analytically astute headline segments on The Daily Show haven’t been able to move the needle in the last 16 years, it’s natural to wonder if anything ever could.
Instead, these brilliantly researched, logically airtight, immaculately constructed pieces are reduced to clickbait — “Jon Stewart ANNIHILATES Anti-Vaxxers” or “The Daily Show EVISCERATES the NRA” or whatever — and just becomes part of the background noise, shared on left-leaning Facebook pages and linked to by left-leaning blogs and winning honestly earned guffaws from the people who need to laugh at it least: the people who already know and agree with everything Stewart is saying. Stewart has no more cred on the right than Rush Limbaugh, who doesn’t research or construct anything lest it interfere with sputtering total horseshit off the top of his head, has on the left. That’s sad, but it’s true.
And it seems to be getting to him. He used to attack this job with gusto, now he seems kind of dead behind the eyes. I don’t begrudge him the chance to go do something else — it will be interesting to see what he gets up to next, and I would love to see what some old-school Jon Stewart stand-up looks like in 2015 — or nothing at all, if that’s his choice. He’s more than earned the rest, and he’ll be a liberal hero for generations. There will probably be a statue of him somewhere by the middle of this century.
As for The Daily Show franchise, I’m not so sure it needs to continue. This Trevor Noah character came under fire right after his appointment as Stewart’s successor for some tasteless tweets, and I agree with the many people whose main reaction to that particular kerfuffle was that, offensiveness aside, the guy just doesn’t seem to be very funny. It’s possible that he will be a phenomenon and prove us all wrong, but early indications (and a little light Googling of his past work) suggest otherwise.
The real successor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is already on the air: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO, which unshackled from commercial breaks, the daily news cycle, and celebrity guest interviews, is taking the mock news format to new and even better places than Stewart did on Comedy Central.
The comedy-news business is in good hands with Oliver. And I don’t begrudge Noah the chance to do a comedy-news show of his own. I just wish they’d call it something else, and retire The Daily Show to the rafters like Michael Jordan’s #23. And make no mistake, I’ll still be watching all the way to the end, with the rest of the choir.