For quite a few years in the 2000s, Diane and I stayed up late during the week to watch The Daily Show and, once it premiered, The Colbert Report. It was the funniest hour on TV. So I was thrilled to write about Stewart’s satirical shindig (and mention Colbert) for a TV GUIDE project about “100 essential shows” that came to be known as I Heart TV, published by Sasquatch Books in 2007. (I also contributed essays on three of my other favorites, My So-Called Life, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Wonder Years.)
I did, eventually, tune out – but not because of Stewart or Colbert, or a decline in quality in their shows. The routine lack of sleep finally caught up with me. Of course, for the longest time, Comedy Central repeated the topical block the next day at 7pm, but…day-old satire is somewhat akin to day-out bread. It’s never quite as tasty. (Plus, on a more practical level, I often don’t arrive home until after 7pm.) Anyway, given that the tome is out of print, and that tonight is Stewart’s last behind the Daily Show anchor desk, I thought I’d share what I wrote about it here:
When it comes down to it, the few news anchors that have broken from the pack of teleprompter-reading wannabes and established their names in the cultural ethos of our time, past and present, can be summed up in two syllables. That is to say, their last names possess not one, not three or four, but two distinct speech sounds. Think about it: Murrow. Cronkite. Rather. Jennings. Brokaw. Stewart. Stewart? Jon Stewart?! Yes.
Since signing on as Daily Show anchor in January 1999, replacing Craig Kilborn (OK, OK, so his two syllables didn’t exactly add up to much), the venerable Jon Stewart has, like his esteemed counterparts, offered a succinct summary of the day’s news, spicing the fair-and-balanced recitations with reports from a select group of grizzled correspondents. He’s grilled presidential candidates (John Kerry, John Edwards), former presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton), a current president (Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf), and an almost-president (Al Gore); talked policy with heavyweight politicos (Sens. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John McCain and Barack Obama, among others); and elicited insights from a long list of former administration officials, commentators and authors. In short, when the news matters most, and even when it doesn’t, the nation’s eyes turn to him.
In the words of President Bush (as channeled by Stewart): “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!”
The multi-Emmy-winning Daily Show is—as we all know by now and Stewart readily admits—“fake news.” The concept itself is essentially Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” juiced up on steroids. It satirizes the issues of the day, mocks our elected and unelected leaders, and skewers a news media that too often acts like movie critics delivering thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews (that is to say, dumbing down most stories). I hesitate to use the word “gravitas,” yet in an emotional monologue following 9/11, Stewart revealed a deeper understanding of America’s greatness than most in the public sphere. “The show in general, we feel, is a privilege. Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, which is really what we do—we sit in the back and we throw spitballs—but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. That is, a country that allows for open satire … that’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open, it’s the difference between free and burdened.”
In addition to Stewart, the show features a ready supply of “correspondents” and “experts” guaranteed to raise smirks, if not smiles and out-and-out laughs. For example, when the Bush administration readjusted the formula for dispersing antiterrorism funds in 2006, decreasing New York City’s budget by 40 percent while upping the amounts given to places like Indiana (which improbably claimed the most terrorist targets in the nation at 8,591), the always dry Dan Bakkedahl visited the state to investigate; and ended up skating the day away in one of the alleged targets, a roller rink. Likewise, correspondent Jason Jones, who has yet to meet a story he can’t regurgitate as a guffaw, offered a provocative piece on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. While an expelled homosexual military linguist translated Arabic text, Jones stripped down to his skivvies in order to gauge if, as the theory goes, the man’s gayness interfered with his job. And, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Samantha Bee ventured to Pennsylvania to learn why some voters remained undecided. After bringing together a focus group of unfocused citizens, she harangued them in hilarious fashion. “What the [bleep] are you waiting for?! Why can you not decide?! [Bleep] or get off the pot!”
In fact, from longtime cranky commentator Lewis Black (who reminds me, in a good way, of John Belushi’s “but, nooooo!” character on the original “Update”), to former reporter Mo Rocca, who’s since found a home on many VH1 I Love Whatever retrospectives, the supporting cast is almost, but not quite, as important as Stewart. A few have actually become, if not stars, then comets zooming through the fractured universe that is today’s pop culture—Steve Carell (NBC’s The Office), Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report) and Rob Corddry (Fox’s The Winner). Colbert is arguably the most notable of that bunch, forever rocking the free world with his fact-free zone. There aren’t many Americans who can claim victory in a contest to have a Hungarian bridge named after him—with more votes (17,231,724 votes) than Hungary has citizens (10,076,581), no less. While he didn’t receive quite that much love as a mere Daily Show correspondent, he did engender plenty of hysterics. On a set reminiscent of the old Joker’s Wild game show, for instance, his regular “This Week in God” spot lampooned every sacred cow and elephant—and not just in India.
The Daily Show also pokes fun at celebrities and, as “This Week in God” suggests, the so-called “culture wars,” including the Left’s annual “attack” on Christmas. However, it does not, as clueless Geraldo Rivera once claimed to Bill O’Reilly, feature “videos of old ladies slipping on ice.” (Maybe Bakkedahl and Jones, but never old ladies—unless Geraldo knows something about those two the rest of us don’t. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.) It is liberal with a lowercase “l,” not Democratic but democratic, filled with bleeped curses and ribald jokes, gleefully taking potshots at anyone and everyone who wanders into the public eye. It’s satire—what a grand two-syllable word—of and for the people.