Sunday, August 2, 2015

Moment of Then

This week, Jon Stewart's tenure as late night host comes to an end. Regular guests Dennis Leary and Louis CK are helping see Stewart out the door, which I guess speaks to his claims that he views himself as a comedian and not the cultural force that we try to make him out to be. Undermining that view? The revelation that Stewart had been "summoned" to the White House a few times (according to Politico, it was to help sell policy; according to Stewart, it was to watch King Ralph and get scolded by the President for making young people cynical).

More interesting than Stewart's last few shows has been Comedy Central's month-long online marathon of his entire run as host. It was a fun reminder of better days and worse; like most of the things I love in this world, I discovered The Daily Show in college. Back then I was listening to Jello Biafra's spoken word albums and dismissing most news outlets as corporate puppets (those two things are undoubtedly related). The Daily Show, then under Craig Kilborn, was much more irreverent and mean-spirited than it is now. The criticisms lobbed at upcoming host Trevor Noah of racist, sexist and quasi-homophobic jokes are a sure sign of the culture's short memory, since that's exactly what the show was like when Stewart inherited it. It took a few years, a writing staff reshuffling and an unthinkable tragedy to hammer the show into the shape that it is now.

When I left the States, I left behind most of the things that were important to me. In their place, Malaysia offered me jobs that overworked and underpaid me, and acquaintances who stood in as friends for as long as they needed or wanted something. One of my few pleasures during the work week was getting to watch The Daily Show on my lunch break. [To whichever marketing drones were responsible for putting the whole show on the web: THANK YOU. You may have saved my sanity.] Watching Jon Stewart provided a brief connection back to the life I left behind.

But the television landscape has changed considerably since then. Former "senior correspondents" Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee have graduated to hosting shows of their own. MSNBC, long a target of Stewart's sardonic eye, has mutated into something very much like The Daily Show, dismantling the news of the day (and the Right) with a mix of analysis, snark and outrage (along with hours of scrotum-based humour). Honestly, between The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, Last Week Tonight, and The Rachel Maddow Show, I have more news(iness) than I can deal with in a single day. I could stand seeing one of those go.

Also, these past few years have revealed cracks in "the most trusted news source". Former writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac made big news recently when he discussed an argument with Stewart that devolved into a screaming match. A few years back, former writer David Feldman insinuated that Stewart has held a grudge against his writers for walking out on him during the writer's strike, with Feldman referring to Stewart as "Satan in Christ's clothes". Seth MacFarlane says he earned an angry phone call for what may have been a very obtuse joke referencing Stewart's actions during the strike. Jezebel tried to expose "The Daily Show's Woman Problem" - the complaint seemed to stem from Olivia Munn's hiring, and probably led (directly or indirectly) to the very annoying Jessica Williams taking Munn's place. So thanks for that, Jezebel. [The allegation that Jon Stewart runs the show "with a joyless rage" actually helped me sympathize with the man, since I'm driven by the exact same thing.]

But the most sobering account of Jon Stewart was Tom Junod's profile for Esquire. The article did all it could to separate the man from our projection of him, and revealed that former staffers and media figures alike refrain from criticizing him out of fear of irreparably damaging their careers ("Satan in Christ's clothes", remember?). It was an enlightening article, but what did people take away from it? Simply that "Jon Stewart is a dick". It would appear the media is incapable of analyzing The Daily Show in the manner The Daily Show analyzes the media.

And apparently none of that matters to the legions of fans, who remain starry-eyed about their hero. Between his cult of personality and angry proselytizing, Stewart has shifted to being (to cop a phrase that NY Mag used to describe The Colbert Report) "very close to what he's parodying, a kind of Bill O'Reilly for the angry left". Whereas Colbert's show required constant parsing to decipher its actual intent, The Daily Show simply asks you to sit back and laugh when it tells you. Maybe Stewart's talent and influence would be better served behind the lens or behind the scenes.

At a time when the world was at the mercy of religious fanatics hellbent on destruction and shameless opportunists eager to make money off of tragedy, Jon Stewart provided a bullhorn for rationality. But that was then. Barring another Bush presidency, his exit now is timely. He characterized his hosting lately by saying he feels "slightly restless"; most nights I can't sit through a whole episode, so I guess that sums up my feelings as well. I don't know if I'll miss him; it depends on what shape the show takes under Trevor Noah, and if the cast fills out with anyone as good as their past correspondents. But Comedy Central's marathon reminded me there's no point in glorifying the past. Here's to the future. Shalom, Stu Beef. And thanks for Stephen Colbert's career.