Once again it’s Monday and therefore time for your local unemployed author/journalist to regale you with more tales from beyond the working world. Except this time my wife and I are heading out of town in a couple of days and so I’m going to set aside the whole “how to be a writer and get published” business for a political topic that’s near and dear to my heart. So, for those of you who hear the world “politics” in this day and age and immediately feel a little bit of bile rise up in your throat (which might make up a fair amount of the audience for this blog), feel free to skip this one. For those of you concerned with our lovely national dialogue and what’s become of it in the sixteen years since Mr. Stewart took helm of The Daily Show, glad to have you aboard.
Jon Stewart gave us his final show last week. Over sixteen years, this man has blessed America with one of the sharpest, most critical and deeply humorous voices in our collective political life, and I for one will miss him quite a bit. His final show was more of a celebration of that legacy than anything else, with tons of former “correspondents,” including a fair amount (*ahem* Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell) who have gone on to become arguably more famous than the man himself making appearances. I was also glad to see some of my all-time favorite people from the show make a quick return, including Mo Rocca, Ed Helms, Larry Wilmore (whose own show on Comedy Central is a darkly hilarious look at race relations and other political hot topics and provides a desperately needed conversation each night), John Hodgman, Nate Cordry, and a surprise appearance from the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader (who was angry Stewart compared him unfavorably to Dick Cheney).
The entire, hour-long show contained a genteelly cheery atmosphere, featured an incredibly well-edited package taking a look at the people behind the scenes of the show, and also managed to include one final tirade from the man himself about “bullshit” and its many variations, which in my opinion summed up this guy’s general take on life quite well. But I’d have to say it’s better to take in the entire final week of the show to get to the bottom of its impact on the political situation in this country.
One segment in particular, “The Daily Show: Destroyer of Worlds” broke down the media’s obsession with Stewart’s “evisceration” strategy of the targets the show has taken on over the years, appraising whether or not it even made a difference at all. While the package was highly entertaining and showcased the best of Stewart’s self-deprecating take on his position as political jester calling out buffoonery and mendacity wherever it be found, it made me re-consider the show in some ways in light of this Flavorwire article by Tom Hawking I read about the end of Stewart’s run (which was itself a riff on a purely awful article by Karol Markowicz for Time Magazine - do people still read that?). The long n’ short of these pieces was that rather than raise the discourse by offering equal mockery of all sides, Stewart actually contributed to the coarsening of said discourse by becoming as bad as the targets he mocked. While there is some ammunition in his sixteen-year run to provide fodder for this point of view, it’s my view that Stewart’s legacy offers a more pernicious ideal than most critical analysis bears out.
This became increasingly clear to me after watching the final, extended interview Stewart offered to our current occupant in the White House, Barack Obama. Now, my opprobrium for this man has been noted over the years, and it’s no secret that I have not been a fan of the president since around the middle of his first term. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the guy again in 2012 based on his track record, which includes a litany of illegal offenses perpetrating the never-ending “War on Terror” including (but not limited to): illegal expansion of war to Libya, illegal assassination campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, the extension of surveillance powers across the spectrum of communication platforms, and the war on whistleblowers, which was perpetuated by the previous administration but picked up in earnest by this one. Plenty of things to pick apart there, and Stewart had ample time to lay into any one of these issues with the benefit of a lengthy, online-only interview which he has used to great effect previously.
Instead, he offered a very long discussion about the Iranian nuclear deal which, while very important and a major legacy for this administration, is something that was a long time coming and should have happened decades ago given the constant interference American has played in that country’s internal affairs for the past half-century. Again, not discounting that this was a good topic to bring up, I just think that for his final interview Stewart could have picked a more controversial topic (although given the adamant GOP opposition to this deal, perhaps it’s more controversial than I concede). And true, if you watch the extended interview you’ll watch Stewart fiercely question Obama about his administration's’ incompetence in the face of the many troubles plaguing the Veterans Administration, and rightly called out the president for not fixing these issues, such as ensuring men and women in uniform receive adequate health care after coming home from these interminable conflicts. I would argue that here was Stewart at his best, baldly calling power to account in front of a huge, smart, television audience. This has been an important issue for the host over many years, and he’s covered it with gusto, so I can hardly fault him for bringing it up with the Commander-in-Chief.
But again, with so much to criticize the president on, I found it odd that he chose these topics. It’s not like Stewart has gone after the Obama administration on all of them through various segments, especially after the Snowden revelations two years ago. I just thought it was bizarre he didn’t bring up any of it, choosing to offer the guy a pretty easy interview. This brings to mind the more pernicious aspect of Stewart’s legacy that makes me worry about the future of satire in this nation: the notion that liberal critiques of a liberal president like Obama are only allowed to go so far, and no further. I saw the same example of this in the risible interview Douglas Brinkley conducted with Obama for Rolling Stone around the time of the 2012 election and the seeming inability for a “progressive” news magazine to criticize the very real problems with this man’s institutionalization of the worst excesses of the “War on Terror.” Now this isn’t Stewart’s problem; remember he’s the same one who allowed Obama walk into the “Yes, we can, but…” quagmire of an answer during an interview he gave to the comedian during the same election cycle. I just yearned for that same, hard-hitting interview style now that both men are on the way out.
What does this have to do with the death of satire? Well, I’d say for the most part it might limit the next host, Trever Noah, by attempting to define the limits of proper discourse for the next president. Noah, whose rocket-propelled career has only grown since the announcement that he’d be taking over for Stewart, made his name on the program by using his South African perspective to rail against the moronic excesses of today’s America, and it’s still my hope this incredibly brilliant guy will use the platform wisely to hold up a mirror to our population each night to show us how off-track we have fallen compared to the rest of the world on issues such as the justice system and climate change. But by not taking on Obama on the myriad of troublesome issues he has seemingly made worse, I fear that Stewart, simply by dint of his pedestal and what he has meant to American life since the Bush years, may have cut him short through actions alone. (Similar vibes held forth in his joint “Rally to Restore Freedom and/or Fear” with the Colbert Report some years ago, which, while a hilarious mockery of the current polarized landscape, basically stated the blase message that “both sides do it.”)
Again, this might be a lot of hand-wringing on my part for nothing. Trevor Noah is his own man and surely the producers of this multiple-Emmy and Peabody winning show will give him plenty of space to maneuver. But Stewart’s odd deference to power, seen generally only in his obsequious interview style with those people sitting in such positions within our government, always rubbed me the wrong way. The importance of his show was to declare the stupidity of our current media landscape and how idiotically it framed our national debate, such as it is in the age of social media and thousands of various places to get news. But I fear that by demonstrating the opposite, and declaring it OK because it’s a “comedy” show, often sent the wrong message to those in power, and one utterly opposed to the one Colbert sent at the 2005 Correspondent's Dinner, which to my mind is the greatest example of satire biting the powerful hand that was stupid enough to invite it to partake at the “grown ups” table.
As great and moving as it was to see Colbert’s tremendous, unscripted tribute in the final episode to the man who got him started, I fear that another searing voice of satire has been lost to the demands of network television by his ascension to the Late Show. But that’s another story.
Bottom line: satire ain’t what it used to be, and while greatly advanced by Jon Stewart (for an example in the other direction, check out his voraciously devious tome America: The Book) in some important ways, I fear the general transition of acquiescence to power seen since the time of 9/11 has not reversed course, but has only grown during his tenure in the age of Obama.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.