The Daily Show isn't as influential as you think
When a supreme talent like Jon Stewart announces he’s giving up his chair at the end of year, it’s hard not to think in superlatives.
He was the guy who forced CNN to cancel Crossfire. His self-conscious irony fortified brand liberalism with gooey comedy goodness. He captured that weird balance between snark and sincerity that the fabled television demo — 18 to 34 year olds — seemed to crave.
The cognoscenti found him cool.
And he is cool. And consistently funny. I watch every episode. But consider:
The Daily Show is funniest when its segments expose institutional failures or make fun of the foibles of politicians and the government, not when it lampoons conservatives, who are easy targets. But since both Stewart and his writers are liberals who favor an activist government that redistributes wealth and one that uses regulation to curtail the rapacious interests of corporations, the show hits its targets by convincing viewers to have less faith in government. I think Stewart would object here and say that the cynicism is directed at politicians and the way they use government, but since politicians are the ones who run the government, the effect is the same. Call it the tragedy of great satire. This is why Stewart is not and could never be an activist.
** Around 2.5 million Americans per night watch The Daily Show. More than nine million tune in to NBC Nightly News. The influence of the people who watch the show is greater than the show's influence itself.
** Thanks to The Daily Show, CNN’s Crossfire died, and then the network simply integrated the he-said/she-said political formula elsewhere. The format lives. Jim Cramer, maligned by Stewart for his boorish financial boosterism, still has a show.
** The Colbert Report was consistently sharper, occasionally the mallet to Stewart's sledgehammer. Where Stewart and his writers squeezed all the possibly laughs by making fun of the dumb things that cable news anchors and politicians say, Stephen Colbert's character, "Stephen Colbert," was a sustained assault on the right's institutionalized anti-elitism and resentment-trigger politics.
** Stewart was a stand-up comic who became a satirist; with some exceptions, the third block of the show, dedicated to interviewing a guest, is always the weakest, even when the guest was a ripe target.
** If it's easier to be a truth-teller on network or cable news shows, it's not because of The Daily Show’s relentless mockery: Fox News broke the illusion of journalistic neutrality, and the rest of the media elite tried to play catch up.
What's best about the show? It incubates talent. Steve Carell and Ed Helms, both actors. Colbert, of course. But John Oliver, too. The Corddry bothers, Rob and Nate. And a generation of whip-smart comics of color who might otherwise remain on the stand-up circuit if not for Stewart's incredible eye for talent and his generosity in letting it fly. Aasif Mandvi, Wyatt Cenac, Mo Rocca, Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams, and Larry Wilmore, among others.
And the writers, too: David Javerbaum (The Late Late Show), Allison Silverman (Portlandia), Tim Carvell (Last Week Tonight).
This is how The Daily Show became more than the sum of its parts.