It’s hard to describe my relationship with The Daily Show. This isn’t something that should have attracted me the way it did – its been a very long time since I was able to call myself a straight liberal, and let’s face it: Jon Stewart is basically a liberal pundit. He attacks his ideological enemies, preaching mainly to the people who are already converted, and I wonder if I could qualify as a person who’s already converted. I used to be converted, but I turned my back on liberalism out of pure frustration: On social issues, I find the left is adept at either burning straw men or not going nearly as far as it needs to. On fiscal issues, I find liberalism lets itself get burned too often when giving the government more money just results in either more of it going the wrong way or the creation of a bigger vacuum for the money to get sucked into. Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that I rail against government spending on sports stadiums quite a bit; that’s because they’re case point A for everything wrong about letting the government use our money.
Still though, Jon Stewart seemed to be in touch with everything about the larger world that pissed me off. Although he was fully aware of what he was, he still made use of a finely-honed bullshit detector. It’s true the left had its pundits before Stewart took over The Daily Show from the insufferable Craig Kilborn in 1999, but all the big ones suffered major problems of their own: Alan Colmes was nothing but a piece of token resistance to a dumbass political sparring partner; Keith Olbermann is basically the left’s version of Bill O’Reilly, a raging lunatic who frequently ranted more than he spoke to his audience and used personal attacks; and Michael Moore, who liked to resort to the same kinds of fact rearrangement and omission that plagues right wing propaganda. With the exception of Rachel Maddow, the left’s pundits all have the combined charisma of an eel. Although they tried to fight the righty fire with flame attacks of their own, their volleys and streams always carried with them a sense of smugness that asked everyone “why the hell should I have to take the time to fucking explain this to the likes of you fucking morons?” This is a part of the reason why so many of them have been blanked from relevance, and why the images of the limousine liberal and the rich Ivy League know-it-all have such a firm grip on the conservative imagination.
Jon Stewart came off as a lot more affable than any of them. Although that was a part of his charm, he caught on because he was the true attack dog liberals were lacking. Instead of trying to shout sound bites at the top of his lungs in attempts to get attention, though, Stewart used his sense of humor to disarm and mock his ideological opponents. And it worked – although Fox News and its proponents would probably deny it, Stewart scared them shitless. Fox News began periodic campaigns of attacking Stewart for his “war on conservatives,” and they never seemed to be taken seriously. Even Stewart himself seemed more amused than anything by their attacks and accusations. He directly responded to them on more than one occasion, mocking them out of it with the same tenacity he used on politicians and media. The irony here is that Fox News helped draw attention to The Daily Show by trying to discredit it; they could have written it off pretty easily as the nebbishy ranting of a misguided comedian and attacked more irrelevant liberal pundits every night. By picking a fight with The Daily Show, Fox News announced to the world that Jon Stewart was a political force to be reckoned with.
It’s probably through attacks by conservative pundits and politicians that The Daily Show was able to morph from a side footnote on a somewhat obscure basic cable network into the mini-hydra. A lot of talent streamed off The Daily Show, but the the three most notable gifts it left to people fed up with the state of American politics are Larry Wilmore of The Nightly Show, John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, and until recently, the brilliant Stephen Colbert, who invoked the ghost of Andy Kaufman but with a political slant. Colbert spent nine years headlining The Colbert Report, a show which arguably bested The Daily Show as a political commentary, or at least as a spoof of punditry.
Even more telling than the ire of Faux News was the numerous awards The Daily Show took back to Comedy Central. The show’s Emmy line alone is pretty damned impressive – it won eight Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Program and from 2003 to 2012, it took home the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Program every year – but it also won the Orwell Award in 2005, which is given out to writers who have made the biggest contributions to “critical analysis of public discourse.” Even more impressive is the fact that The Daily Show managed to win two Peabody Awards for its coverage of the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections. The Peabody’s are the highest awards journalists can win, and the fact that The Daily Show won them twice for election coverage probably says a lot about both The Daily Show itself and the sorry state of political coverage in actual media.
Jon Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, has a hell of a job in front of him. I’m looking forward to seeing where he takes the most sane half-hour on TV, but don’t make any mistakes here: A long era of critical commentary and bullshit detection is in the rearview. I hope Noah can succeed in presenting his nightly commentary as Trevor Noah, because that alone will be his success. Trying to act as Jon Stewart’s better or his outright replacement isn’t going to end well for him if not.