I should probably begin with a full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Jon Stewart. The last time I regularly watched The Daily Show, Craig Kilborn was still hosting it (and how’s that for dating yourself?). To Stewart’s credit, the show’s ratings went up an estimated 400% after taking the helm. By most accounts he is an intelligent, thoughtful, worldly, and compassionate man who sincerely wants to help rehabilitate our political system. And with that introduction, it’s time for a new segment I’m calling ‘Unpopular Opinions’, wherein I flex my contrarian muscles. This first topic has given me no small amount of anxiety in tackling, but I feel it must be said. Good riddance to Jon Stewart. I am not saddened to see him go, and if there really is a God then The Daily Show will follow shortly after.
Now for my thesis: Jon Stewart is not terrifically funny. Perhaps his writers are, but it seems as though his comedic repertoire consists only of smug, snarky one-liners delivered simultaneously by slamming his fists into the table in faux outrage while contorting his face into goofy, exasperated expressions of confusion. His limited range (which he readily acknowledges) is also evident in his film and comedic work as well (though, I loved ‘Death to Smoochy’). While Stewart and his compatriots at The Daily Show are not the only ones guilty of being one-trick ponies, their worst offense has more to do with the influence they’ve cultivated by way of their popularity.
American politics are beyond dysfunctional, a fact which I believe has been widely apparent for some time now. Stewarts’ program – which fashions itself a satirical send-up of the American news cycle – is actually perceived by its audience as legitimate political commentary (which only serves as a maddeningly dour comment on journalism in the modern era). The visibility and esteem granted by its audience and other figures within the realm of entertainment ought to have elevated the standards by which the show adhered to. Instead, Stewart and his writers were happy to operate with a similarly loose attitude towards ethics as their peers on television – their interview with economist Peter Schiff and the reporting of the Benghazi incident serve as good examples. The show picks easy targets (the Fox News network comes to mind) and enthusiastically supports the prominent narratives of the day – regardless of their veracity or their grip on reality. Whether the show was hunting for targets or merely piling on top of whatever controversy was popular at the time, they rarely deviated from their own biases (Jon Stewart has spoken in interviews about his left-leaning political bias).
Stewart took over the show during the W. Bush administration; to say he benefited from Bush Jr.’s presidency would be a mammoth understatement. The Daily Show cut its teeth on Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld’s frequent displays of transparent corruption. But let’s be perfectly honest: their writers room could have been staffed with a dozen lobotomized orangutans, that’s how much material GW offered. Criticizing the Bush Administration was hardly a controversial notion at the time. And by the end of W’s tenure, he was openly mocked in nearly every medium. To my knowledge, he is the only U.S. president to have been assaulted with a shoe mid-sentence; you just cannot make this stuff up. In the wake of their early success, The Daily Show largely followed this model of cheekily parodying right-wing politics, though to their credit they have slung the occasional mud at their liberal/democrat peers.
Stewarts success has spawned several clones including The Young Turks and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, programs that are unabashedly left-leaning. These programs portray themselves as progressives, the realists who truly represent the American people and their political sensibilities. They too, speak Stewarts comedic and journalistic language – the now familiar but uninspiring ‘shaming’ of non-progressive politics. I personally find this to be outright laughable; these people are not as intelligent or radical in their thinking as they act. They are fairly conventional statists who support political agendas when they are convenient, and cruelly defame the ones that are not (Stewart has been particularly vicious towards the 9/11 truth community). And as far John Oliver is concerned, I really hate when someone from a different country gets a television show in the U.S. that allows them to speak with authority on American culture, society, and politics.
Any person or entity in the public consciousness has a greater responsibility to the truth than the rest of us, exactly because their sphere of influence expands further than our own. The declining intellectual standards of the day have allowed The Daily Show to bask in the glow of American hero worship, and our own uniquely uncritical society that celebrates the banal and the pedestrian. When challenged, Jon Stewart prefers to deflect what little criticism he receives by hiding behind the ‘we are just a comedy show’ defense, but that argument has not stood the test of time. I wouldn’t call him a liar, but his statement is intellectually dishonest. Stewart has published politically themed books, held rallies, and even hosted the White House Correspondents’ dinner. He is as deeply entrenched in the political machine as the very people he lampoons on television every weeknight.
The Daily Show may have been innovative at one point, but now it’s over the hill and desperately clinging on like an out of fashion rock band or an aging prizefighter. It remains to be seen how the show will fare once Trevor Noah assumes Stewarts role later this year. Comedy Central might be wise to put this one out to pasture before the smell of rot sets in. Rant over.