Somewhere along the way, Jon Stewart discovered he could make stupid people laugh by smirking at Fox News clips — and the world has never been the same since. Stewart, who anchored The Daily Show until 2015, is often remembered as the progenitor of a long line of left-wing topical comedians, from Stephen Colbert to John Oliver to Samantha Bee. Yet before that he was something else: the most gloriously subversive personality on television.
The Daily Show’s heyday came at the turn of the century, just after Stewart had taken it over from Craig Kilborn. His approach back then wasn’t so much activist as satirical, aping the corporate news and thereby exposing its stupidities and hypocrisies. The Daily Show was comedy done the hard way, not partisan dunks but biting caricature and points made through mimicry. To tune in back then was to feel like you were at the back of a 1990s classroom, hanging out with a cool pack of slackers dressed ironically in suits to mock the teacher.
So what happened? Stewart, like so many entertainers of his day, was driven around the bend by the Bush administration. The show had always tilted left, but as the 2000s wore on, it became less about mocking the news than shouting at it. Stewart’s solo segments were expanded; he became obsessed with Fox News whose clips he often aired out of context. A brain-dead in-studio audience cackled and myoclonically jerked along to everything he said. Democrats hailed the show as brilliant; in reality, it had grown predictable and stale.
For those of us who grew up with it, The Daily Show’s deterioration felt like a genuine cultural loss. The issue wasn’t that Stewart had become a prominent progressive voice. It was that he’d become a pundit, another voice screaming into the void. Punditry is my job and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But in today’s howling mob of a mediascape, there’s nothing daring or rebellious about it either. There aren’t even any barriers to entry: a 10-year-old latchkey kid can finish his snack, log on to Twitter and start calling the president a c**t. It’s the most saturated market on earth, even as we thirst for actual insights.
So no surprise, then, that Stewart gave way not just to a successor but to about four million of them. Today, his heirs, who mimic both his approach and his politics, are spread across practically every network on TV. The ‘funnyman as newsreader’ shtick traces back to long before Stewart — Mort Sahl, SNL’s Weekend Update — but today it’s become so pervasive as to feel like newsreel propaganda. Stephen Colbert puts his hands in his pockets and mugs at Donald Trump. John Oliver reads Vox articles off the teleprompter and intersperses them with f-bombs. Samantha Bee is so edgy as to sometimes even call Republicans racists. Jordan Klepper covers hot-button issues, and while he’s never done a segment on mercy killings, his show did recently undergo one.
None of these people are in any sense of the word interesting. What they are is partisan comfort food. Are you worried that the right-wing goons are on the march again? Tune in tonight and find out why they’re just as ridiculous as they were yesterday! Why take your political opponents seriously when they can be so easily DESTROYED by a facial expression? Why bother to wrangle with their arguments when a video clip fresh out of the editing chop shop shows them owning themselves? I’m not saying the conservative side doesn’t do this — they do, and often less cleverly than Samantha Bee. What I am saying is that if you succumb to this kind of therapeutic incuriosity, one day you just might wake up and discover that the right-wing goons have won. Donald Trump got elected President of the United States while you were sniggering at him from the couch.
There’s also the problem of, as our liberal friends would put it, power dynamics. At least when Stewart was battling the Bush administration, you could make the argument that liberalism was a minority persuasion in America. Today, the left is a political and cultural juggernaut, dominating the elected federal government, the civil service, the mainstream press, Hollywood, Big Tech, increasingly even the corporate world. It’s our new civic religion, which has turned its comedians into something like high priests, mouthing its tenets and ridiculing its apostates. All the old rules of satire — don’t punch down, afflict the comfortable — amount to a generally anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic mindset. Yet Stewart’s imitators exist only to reinforce the existing authorities while at the same time pretending they don’t have any authority at all.
The poverty of this act can be seen with the current host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. Noah has a rep for being unfunny, but I’ve always found him enjoyable enough and more sensitive than Stewart ever was. What he isn’t is remotely transgressive. His Daily Show, even more than Stewart’s, feels like a kind of Zoom-based woke consultancy, with denunciations aimed at all the usual right-wing targets. Since COVID, he’s even instituted a name change, The Daily Social Distancing Show (ha ha!), its logo the Statue of Liberty wearing a mask.
I’m not saying Noah ought to be promulgating vaccine skepticism (in fact, please, please don’t do that). It’s just that what he’s saying is what everyone else is saying. The Daily Show’s erstwhile middle finger to the powerful has been lowered.
Now contrast that with what might be my favorite all-time old Daily Show segment. It was a panel discussion from 2001 over the then-popular stunt show Jackass. The three experts — a pregnant civil libertarian, a media watchdog who sprays bear mace into his own eyes to demonstrate Jackass’s sway over him, and a communications professor who won’t stop playing a violent clip to demonstrate how violent TV is, played by Nancy Walls, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert respectively — perfectly illustrate the absurdity of this kind of news segment. The bit works because it isn’t partisan scream-o, because it ridicules something we all recognize by embodying it and making us laugh at it.
It would be nice to still have a show like that, one that understands that the medium was the message, that held up a mirror to the deeply stupid ways we communicate with each other today. Alas, that’s long gone. Even the comedians are pundits now.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.