It’s safe to say that, 17 years ago, The Daily Show was a fledgling show. “Daily satiric news anchor” was not a job. And Jon Stewart was just a stand-up comic and occasional actor, not yet the comedy nerd/political junkie’s lord and savior.
Which isn’t to say that Stewart and the team behind Comedy Central’s late-night staple invented their own genre of topical tomfoolery. Shows like That Was the Week That Was experimented with the satirical news format as early as the Sixties. Everything from Bob & Ray to HBO’s Not Necessarily the News might be considered an antecedent, and there were obvious predecessors like SNL‘s “Weekend Update” segments and Michael Moore’s aggressive gonzo-gotcha field-reporting experiments The Ugly Truth and TV Nation. Stewart’s tenure at TDS arguably found as much in common with these last two than it did with Craig Kilborn’s Daily Show, which had been a home for toothless fancies and pop-culture snark. There were still a lot of characters (e.g. Beth Littleford as the tear-jerking interviewer) and news parodies, but as he quickly discovered, exaggerated versions of honest responses to ridiculous or awful things can be enough to affect an audience.
Politicians spend their lives in the spotlight, and they’re used to be called out by fellow lawmakers, pundits, journalists — even comics from time to time. But Stewart managed to open up an intimate dialogue with them. Since Bill Clinton made the rounds with his sax (or if you want, since Richard Nixon took a pie to the face on Laugh-In), the trend was to appear on late night shows to prove you’re cool and/or have a sense of humor about yourself. Sure, the host went for easy laughs sometimes, but when a politician came on TDS, there was a real chance they had been or would be thoroughly dissected. A voracious reader and erudite interlocutor, Stewart gave his politician guests a run for their money. And, eventually, the show become a place to stop on a PR tour or to announce your candidacy for elected office. Certain interviews, like his takedown of Mad Money‘s Jim Cramer, made him something of a folk-hero legend. By the time Barack Obama got there for his first interview in 2005, he told Stewart, “The only person more over-hyped than me is you.”
Watching The Daily Show was an intro to the news, an analysis of the news and an emotional interpretation of the news.
One of the ways TDS changed its dialogue with politics was by moving as fast as the news; surely this was the vision of co-creators Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, but Stewart honed and perfected the art of broadcasting every day. Responses to gaffes and scandals came fast. The relentlessness of the schedule meant steady pressure could be applied to politicians and the media outlets that cover these politicians; a weekly or monthly dispatch could not dig into an administration’s ongoing policy fouls the way those recurring “Mess O’ Potamia” segments could.
Of course, it helped that Stewart came unto his own as cable networks were not only asserting their individual identities but working to fill countless hours with panels of talking heads and endless white-noise editorializing. He didn’t just focus on policy makers’ packaged messages, but also the media’s repackaging of those messages immediately afterward — and then held their collective feet to the fire. This is what it looks like when a comedian becomes a real foil of purported news sources, having jocular exchanges that made Bill O’Reilly look like even more of a ridiculous character than he already was. Reportedly, Stewart’s replacement Trevor Noah will let go some of the Fox News jokes; which is fine, really, let’s move on. But then again, it’s sad to imagine there will be no one to bring actual balance to Fox’s “Fair and Balanced” propaganda machine.
Unlike their parents, the Gen Y demographic and Millennials had no need of the avuncular, wise godhead that the Greatest Generation found in Edward R. Murrow, and later passed onto Boomers with Walter Cronkite, et al. For many who got their news from increasingly disparate sources, and without gathering around the TV set in the early evening, Stewart offered something more than Headlines 101. Viewers hoped to have their own feelings clarified. When things were infuriating, he raged. When something touched him, he cried. With all the confusion, frustration and absurdity seemingly inherent in the political process, fans wanted to hear pointlessness reflected as aggravation, and ridiculousness coming back in mockery. Watching The Daily Show was an intro to the news, an analysis of the news and an emotional interpretation of the news.
Stewart is sensitive, rational and he doesn’t mind going ballistic on behalf of his audience. Does that make his followers lazy? Maybe. Would there have been gamechanging revolution and Gore in office if Indecision 2000 hadn’t happened? Probably not. The thing is: In the last 17 years, for better or for worse, politicians, networks and viewers began to take this man — who swears up and down, every chance he gets, that he’s not an activist or a journalist — seriously. He made satire a part of the national dialogue in a way that it hasn’t been before, and that’s beautiful. Before Stewart, how often and how carefully was the media-gulping public made aware of the truly clownish nature of the political circus? How often can you see the Capitol Steps?
Stewart leaves behind a legacy of having raised the bar for political discourse — to jostle folks as they laugh at political folly, to remind people of the real-world consequences embedded in those punchlines, to demand that, amidst all late-night shucking-and-jiving, people in power should be held accountable for the state of our nation. He’ll now make films, go back to doing stand-up (hopefully) and hang out at his Post-Talk Show Garden of Eden, i.e. that New Jersey farm he keeps mentioning. A crowd of others, including former Daily Show correspondents Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and Stewart’s aforementioned successor, have all agreed to carry on with various permutations of the world the host has built. None of them, not even Noah, should try to fill Stewart’s shoes; it’d be a waste of time. The best for these new(er) faces to do is follow their predecessor’s example: Start first as a man before you become a brand.