Jon Stewart May Be Irreplaceable…and That’s Just Fine
In a hallway adjacent to the Lawrence High School auditorium, you’ll find the Hall of Honor, a collection of plaques plastered to the wall commemorating notable alumni. According to his plaque, the New Jersey school inducted Class of 1980’s Jon “Stewart” Leibowitz into the Hall of Honor in 1997, two years before he took over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn. Notably, the plaque also refers to his field of achievement as “Entertainmant,” spelled wrong, just like that.
Looking at that plaque between classes growing up, I always had the same thought: “Man, they really didn’t expect much more from this guy.” They honored him two years after his previous talk show, MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show, was canceled (probably assuming he reached his peak), and then they, despite a building full of English teachers at the ready, didn’t even bother to edit the 12 words on the plaque, leaving a misspelling that remains to this day. (Side note: if anyone from LHS is reading this, would you mind having that plaque fixed?) Granted, having hosted a show at all is still quite an achievement, but the school definitely threw in the towel early.
To be fair, no one could have predicted Jon Stewart’s phenomenal success. It’s a career that simply redefines what a comedian can achieve. It goes well beyond launching and maintaining a hit Comedy Central talk show, which itself, as Colin Quinn, Adam Carolla or D.L. Hughley might tell you, is no easy feat. It goes well beyond helping establish the talents of others who would change the face of comedy, from Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell to Jessica Williams and John Oliver. It even goes well beyond his meteoric rise from lowly standup to, as numerous polls and articles have crowned him, “the most trusted man in America.”
More than any of that, Jon Stewart revolutionized political satire, his show affecting our culture, our relationship with politics and how we consume media. By perfecting the “fake news” genre, Stewart created a rich, repeatable format, one that was accessible to a mass audience yet detailed and rigorous enough to educate and entertain political junkies. It spawned spinoffs and rip-offs, countless cover stories and endless analysis.
He made serious media criticism not just funny but cool, attracting legions of young viewers previously apathetic to politics, much to the annoyance of “legitimate” news agencies and politicians who never figured out how to win that demographic over. Suddenly, high school teachers were using a Comedy Central series as a teaching tool, presidential candidates and Nobel Prize laureates willingly dropped by the program that once followed Crank Yankers, and when word dropped last week that President Obama had been meeting with Stewart in private to discuss policy, the reaction wasn’t shock but bemusement. Of course that happened. After everything else, why wouldn’t it? I guess I can forgive my high school for not predicting any of this.
All things must pass, though, and like anyone placed in a high-intensity spotlight for over 15 years, Stewart got tired. He’ll leave The Daily Show for good tonight, with Trevor Noah taking the reins at the end of September. In the wake of this announcement last February, a lot of bloggers and newscasters were quick to call Stewart “irreplaceable.” Yet while that’s certainly meant as a compliment, isn’t it also a warning? What’s the TV and political comedy landscape going to look like without him?
Since Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, the U.S. became an often bewildering place to live: contradictory, noisy and paranoid. The Internet sped up the news cycle considerably, and as competition grew, fearmongering, rather than reporting, seemed to become the media’s primary concern. Real life came to feel more and more like the plot of some absurdist dystopian satire you were assigned to read in school. Some days you laughed it off. Most days you wanted to scream, “Is anyone else fucking seeing this shit?!”
The Daily Show built its popularity around being that beacon of sanity for many people. It was so easy to feel awash in a sea of information that, whether in the throes of national tragedy or a bad Congressional decision, seeing what Stewart would say the next night was a deeply therapeutic experience, a deep exhale. Soon, though he always insisted his primary role was entertainer, not journalist, what he was up to felt a lot more like journalism than the real thing.
By the end of the decade, he topped a Time online poll seeking out the country’s most trusted newsman. “Trusted” is the keyword there. He didn’t win because he was a more objective journalist than, say, Brian Williams or Katie Couric. It’s because, whether you agreed with him or not, he never seemed disingenuous. Stewart told you the facts, sure, but he also told you his opinions. At his best, he and his writers crafted segments informed by a sort of visceral logic. His bits were always based in fact, but he could deliver them with a compelling emotional intensity, each building on the other to create reasoned, passionate arguments that felt undeniable.
It wasn’t just his takedowns that developed that trust, though. It was his compassion and warmth (as well as some ideological differences) that separated him from other news anchors and contemporaries like Bill Maher. There’s a reason his powerful 9/11 monologue makes the rounds every September. There’s a reason that his angry rant following the recent shooting in Charleston became a viral hit. His voice trembling with fury or fear, it’s the sound of someone who’s just had it and needs to come clean about what he’s feeling. It’s the comedy cliché of “someone’s finally saying what I’ve always thought” taken to transcendent heights. Intelligent optimism and desperation are two of my favorite modes in any sort of art, and The Daily Show managed to blend both in its brightest moments.
All of this is just a long way of saying, “What now?” The Daily Show’s legacy reaches far beyond its own accomplishments, branching out through spinoffs (The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show), spiritual successors (Last Week Tonight), and legions of other imitators, whether international and domestic, professional and amateur, inspired by Stewart’s model. But what happens when those branches lose their trunk? Where does that leave us?
The natural assumption is that every one of those shows (especially the in vogue Last Week Tonight) will easily fill the gap Stewart leaves behind, but as I’ve written about before, that sort of thinking falls apart upon closer inspection. Each of these shows may tackle similar subject matter based in similar ideologies, but they approach their stories from vastly different angles.
Like all children pushing back against their parents so they can carve out their own lives, each of the series under the Daily Show umbrella was created to be distinct from Stewart’s program. The Colbert Report satirizes conservative punditry and American exceptionalism from the ironic remove of a character; John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight focuses primarily on long-form, deep-dive investigative pieces regardless if they’re topical or not, while Larry Wilmore gears The Nightly Show toward amplifying voices of minorities, basing episodes around single topics to discuss with a panel. They all found ways to build off The Daily Show’s foundation while crafting their own identities.
In other words, these shows don’t really do what The Daily Show does. Sure, it’s easy to take Stewart’s Fox News-bashing for granted, or plain get bored of it, but that’s mostly because we’ve become accustomed to it. It’s important to realize that none of those other shows, especially now that The Colbert Report’s gone, really call out the media as regularly and as ferociously as Stewart does. They all avoid it because they assume The Daily Show is taking care of it. And even though its host is leaving, those other shows won’t double back to pick up where he left off.
Same goes for Stewart’s righteous anger. When people criticize him for claiming he’s not a journalist, it’s partially because many of the defining moments of his career saw him dropping the jokes completely and confronting a problem head on. Whether ripping apart Crossfire, shaming CNBC for its terrible financial advice in the wake of the housing market crash, or lambasting Republican lawmakers filibustering a 9/11 first-responder health care bill, Stewart voiced the country’s rage, providing catharsis for millions and affecting real political change to boot.
Now, sure, that anger seethes underneath any good satire, including all the shows I’ve mentioned to varying degrees. And without a doubt, John Oliver, a veteran Daily Show correspondent himself, is particularly adept at mobilizing his audience. His early-series net neutrality segment, for instance, brought mass awareness to the issue and helped pressure the FCC into passing protective measures. Yet Oliver’s show, being weekly, can’t always afford to discuss headline news, and its real value is in bringing attention to underreported stories anyway. There’s a refreshing finger-on-the-pulse aggression and dogged determination that would surge out of Stewart’s best work, and at least as of now, there’s no real suitable replacement for it.
Of course, the real wildcard here is Trevor Noah. We’ve gotten hints of what direction he wants to steer his show — more Buzzfeed satire than Fox News slamming — and we know that The Daily Show’s executive producers and correspondents will make the transition, but even with these bits of info, it really comes down to Noah himself. If he’s really going to take on the online news industry, then that might be the key to his eventual success. Stewart may still be as relevant as ever now, but his show is built for fighting a war with a form of media that will soon grow obsolete. Plus, though he may still have fuel left in the tank, these past 17 years have worn down his outlook. Compare the embattled optimism of that 9/11 monologue (“I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair”) with his harsh resignation following the Charleston shooting (“I’m confident though…by seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jackshit”) to see how decades of doing his job has curdled his determination into, if not quite cynicism, certainly something like bitterness. After all, how long can you attempt to summit “Bullshit Mountain,” as he liked to call it, before you run out of supplies?
Across the board, we’re in the midst of a transition period in late night. Consider this: the veteran of Comedy Central’s late night block will now be Chris Hardwick, only two years into his own game show. So while Noah and the rest of the hosts slowly rebuild the late-night landscape with their own ideas and attitudes, the most important thing to remember now is that they’ll need time to find their way. Especially for the shows that run every night, all this can take months and months to work out.
So, yes, Jon Stewart may be irreplaceable, and, yes, it’s a real blow for comedy as a whole. I do have hope, though, that if we’re patient, something new and different, if not necessarily as groundbreaking, can be built in his place soon. It’s still too early to say, but that might be all we need for now — until the next revolutionary comes along.
Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and comedy guy living in New York. Follow him on Twitter for updates on how that’s working out for him.