The Satire We Need Right Now Is All The Satire That’s On Right Now
Last fall, I was watching a new episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver with a few friends, the one featuring an exposé on civil forfeitures. Toward the end, one of my friends blurted out that he thought he got more out of Last Week Tonight than he ever got out of The Daily Show. Another friend agreed, but I wasn’t so sure. I mean, it’s a tough claim to make, especially if you’ve been watching The Daily Show for most of its run, like I have. How can you compare something that’s aired thousands of episodes, all of those revelatory segments that could feel like small revolutions were taking place, with something that’s only been on for a few months?
I know where my friends were coming from, though. After all, Last Week Tonight had an excellent first season, better than even John Oliver’s biggest fans might have anticipated when it was first announced. The show, airing as it does on your friend’s dad’s HBO Go account, has neither censorship nor commercial breaks to worry about, and given Oliver’s old job on Jon Stewart’s show, the general expectation was that it might be The Daily Show plus the awesome chance to hear an unbleeped “fuck.”
Instead, Oliver and his writers used that format to their advantage. Without the ability to react to the daily news, he turned the show into a force of comedic investigative journalism, delivering long, cutting 15-20 minute arguments about important topics that often had little to no media attention. Even weirder was that these rants, as long as they were, managed to become viral hits week after week. Oliver struck a nerve — there was a sense of danger to his jokes and discovery to his reporting, of being in on the ground floor of something big that only comes with the best satire, and the public and press were all too eager to praise Last Week Tonight for a new take on the “fake news” format.
But notice that I said “a new take.” With Jon Stewart announcing his retirement this week, articles and retrospectives from all corners of the internet made it clear just how special Stewart was as a host and satirist, how many innovations he brought to political comedy and how he set the standard by which other late night satire was compared. With all the speculation about who will replace him as the third Daily Show host (will it be frontrunner Jessica Williams? Will it be Craig Kilborn lying in wait to take back what’s his?), there’s the fear that no one may be able to adequately replace his brilliance.
At least the same kind of brilliance. See, whoever replaces Jon should take a tip from John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and, now, Larry Wilmore, all of whom seemed to know that replicating him was out of the question. So rather than repeat the formula, they all stretched out into their own territory. So far, so good. Each of these shows plotted out their own paths and identities and went about making them a reality.
But something happened. Last year, pieces cropped up in places like Salon, Gawkerand The Guardian not just praising Last Week Tonight but claiming, like my friends, that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had, at best, lost their magic, or worse, become counterproductive. They’re the old guard, and Last Week Tonight and The Nightly Show are the next generation. They’ve fallen victim to formula, while Last Week and Nightly are still playing with structure. In some ways, I agree. I understand that impulse.
At the same time, so what? Why pit these shows against each other?
Certainly, if you want to say Last Week Tonight is better than The Daily Show, go ahead. Comparing the two shows last year, I’d agree with you. TV shows tend to decline over time: what’s new becomes commonplace, what seemed groundbreaking in 2000 might seem safe now. But those criticisms and comparisons seem sort of odd here, particularly because, like any show airing every day, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report vacillated wildly between disposable and vital from week to week. They always had, even during their best eras. Part of that’s by design and purpose. No, on an episode-to-episode basis, those shows weren’t often essential viewing. But they also aren’t constructed to make a major statement every week the way Last Week Tonight is.
Stewart and Colbert’s shows worked their best when they commented on explosive news events that developed over time, and with Stewart retiring and Colbert off to do whatever he’s going to do at The Late Show, we can’t count on them to guide us through another election season, when their shows really picked up steam. Will Wilmore’s one-topic-per-episode format and Oliver’s weekly installments evolve to adequately handle the ever-shifting headlines of the presidential election? Will they eschew consistent election coverage entirely? Will Stewart’s replacement be able to hold his or her own during the relentless news cycle?
And for that matter, there’s another reason Jon Stewart’s tenure remained so indispensable, and The Daily Show’s future remains such a source of cautious optimism. Stewart’s detractors seem to have tired of his war with the likes of Fox News and CNN, that it’s become stale, especially since it’s a war that maybe can’t be won. Oliver and Wilmore, on the other hand, may react to those news reports but have moved on to other concerns, because the assumption is that The Daily Show is taking care of it. That’s why it’s so important that Stewart keeps doing it. People implicitly trust TV journalists (and those who seem like journalists) and if someone isn’t calling them out on their bullshit, who will? This is the same guy, after all, who brought down CNN’s Crossfire and called out CNBC’s economic reporting in the wake of the housing market crash. Attacking the news day-in, day-out may not be the sexiest, edgiest comedy anymore, but it’s necessary work.
But these are all broad strokes. Let’s get specific. Over the last half a year or so, Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and The Nightly Show all tackled the protests stemming from the murders of unarmed black men by white police officers throughout the country and the multiple grand jury non-indictments that followed. Gut reaction might be to say that these shows all regurgitated the same basic points, and because of that it’s not necessary to watch more than one of these shows riff on the same topic. After all, they spring from the same format and espouse similar political perspectives. Yet a closer look reveals otherwise.
Airing once a week, Last Week Tonight couldn’t hope to keep up with a hot-button story like Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, one where new info poured in every day. Instead, it did what it does best: using recent headlines to tackle a big-picture story that works regardless of that week’s context. Oliver set his sights on unnecessary police militarization, one of the more prominent causes of brutality against protestors and unarmed citizens, and brings together evidence from towns all over the country (including one instance of a New Hampshire town government requesting an armored military truck to protect its Pumpkin Festival) to illustrate how widespread the problem has gotten.
The Daily Show, for its take, called out the media (specifically, of course, Fox News) for its coverage of the murder and the ensuing protests. His contribution, as it often is, particularly outside of election season, is less about the political landscape than our consumption of it, providing a corrective to how the never-ending news cycle can distort facts and perspectives in order to further its ratings and financial goals. He called out the major news networks for dodging tough discussions about racism and for swaying their viewers to do the same. Meanwhile, The Colbert Report, as it usually did, played like the Bizarro version of The Daily Show, with Stephen Colbert joining the ranks of opposing pundits and newscasters to reduce their arguments to absurd anti-logic and expose them as the short-sighted, irrelevant and racist viewpoints they are.
Months later, in January, with The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore took advantage of his position as the only black man in late night, picking up where W. Kamau Bell’s FX/FXX show left off, and dedicated his pilot to approaching the issue from a more personal perspective. Like Oliver, Wilmore also looked at the big picture, tackling the “state of the black protest.” With a panel discussion featuring Senator Cory Booker, rapper/activist Talib Kweli and the show’s own Shenaz Treasury, Bill Burr was positioned as the “token white” comedian, a funny reversal to the usual late night fare.
The Nightly Show’s M.O. is to broach topics affecting minorities that the other late night shows can’t touch, or provide differing, refreshing opinions to the headline news of the day as only he and his panelists can. And as the show continues to develop, it will likely shed its influences to become an even more distinct presence on Comedy Central, especially considering Wilmore will be the network’s veteran host once Stewart’s out.
Yes, occasionally these shows do overlap and repeat each other, but only in the same way that if you make a joke on Twitter, hundreds of other people already made the same one. Sometimes that’s inevitable. The way I see it, though, each of these shows may have sprung from Stewart’s fruitful loins (or a less disgusting metaphor) but they’ve each found their own way to contribute to the national discussion. We should only start to worry and argue when satire doesn’t work, when it kicks people when they’re down. Whatever route Wilmore and Oliver take, and whoever the new Daily Show host ends up being, as long as they are a positive (and hilarious) influence for change, that should be all that matters to us. Sure, some can be funnier or more effective than others, but the more satire that’s on TV, the better.
Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and comedy guy. He recently started linking to his Twitter out of compulsive need.