The year was 2000. A presidential election had just ended in, what, a tie? Somewhere between the recounts and the hanging chads, we were watching our country come unglued. No one knew how to process what was happening. No one except Jon Stewart.
Still reasonably new to The Daily Show chair, he’d steered the show away from Craig Kilborn’s frat boy approach, and in a more overtly political direction. Now, with a constitutional clusterf*ck unfolding, he dived in head first, framing the entire event with his “Indecision 2000” coverage. From that moment on, he would be the voice in political comedy, and with the Bush years dawning, provide sanity for a liberal audience desperately in need of a release.
Stewart was a brilliant comedian, who mixed the silly with the serious better than anyone of his generation. But he also had a gift for mining righteous anger, and somehow making it funny. This stuffed pissed him off, just like it pissed us off. For a half an hour every night we could blow off some steam with Jon, as he raged against the dying light of democracy. By the end of it, we felt better. This wasn’t the warm milk of late night shows past. This was a high caffeinated comedian holding the jerks, and often his own audience accountable.
Cut to 2016. This year’s presidential election is coming off the rails, and we have no Jon Stewart to help us process whatever the hell is going on. As the erstwhile host goes full J.D. Salinger on his Jersey farm, Rome burns. Or Berns, depending on who you’re voting for. Sure, no one seems capable of calling Trump out for his idiotic, racist campaign, but more surprisingly, the Democrats are at each other’s throats.
It would be ridiculous to say that Jon Stewart stepping down from The Daily Show was responsible for the rise of Bernie Sanders or for the anger that has led progressives to mount an insurrection inside the Democratic Party. That has been building for years. But a 2007 survey did show that Daily Show viewers were some of the most informed young voters in the nation. They were the Democratic base.
Is it possible that Stewart was giving voice to liberal’s anger, and helping them vent it? Without that release, well, maybe the wayward Daily Show audience allowed the anger to consume then, and turn against each other.
And yes, those looking for an outlet have any number of comedy shows to turn to. But that’s part of the problem. We are a reflection of the fractured media landscape, peeling off to our own corners. One person likes Seth Meyers’ snarky SNL take, another Bill Maher’s smug old white guy perspective. Some tune into the brilliant Stephen Colbert’s big tent talk show, while others like Larry Wilmore’s interesting, if not laugh out loud take on the news. With Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, we were all tuning in together. That meant we all had to find some common ground. That common ground is now lacking.
Is there a chance to find it again, or has that moment past? Who is ready to take on the mantle Jon Stewart has vacated? Probably not Trevor Noah, a likeable comedian who seems anything but angry. Yes, he can be funny, but he isn’t fighting for something, or against anything. He’s detached, and so we can’t invest our fury in him.
He recently told NPR’s Fresh Air, ”I can’t trick myself into getting stressed by First World problems. Things are going great. Things are going very, very well.”
Maybe it’s because he’s not from America, and is invested in our issues more as an outside observer, but when you look at the work of John Oliver and Samantha Bee, a Englishman and a Canadian, you realize being an immigrant isn’t an excuse to not have some fire in the belly.
Now, both of those hosts are doing brilliant work, and they both carry the gauntlet of righteous fury that Stewart laid down. Still, they have their drawbacks. For one, Samantha Bee just premiered, so her voice has only recently joined the fray. And both only air once a week. That’s a far cry from our daily ritual with Jon, and makes a big difference.
Oliver, too, for noble reasons, avoided covering the day-to-day blather of the election, and the rise of Trump, for far too long. Thankfully, that changed in a big way last Sunday with his epic takedown of the Republican frontrunner. #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain.
If only one of them had been given The Daily Show, things might be very different, but Oliver had already established his HBO series by the time Jon hung it up, and for some inexplicable reason Bee was never asked. (Just for a minute, let’s dream of Oliver and Bee back to back every night on Comedy Central. Now wake up, because it will never happen.)
Who knows if this election would have played out any differently if Jon Stewart hadn’t abdicated his throne? Might he have helped puncture the Trump balloon long before it took off? His last show was the night of the first Republican debate, after all. Might he have found a way to call Hillary out on her past troubles, or help remind the Bernie fans that Hillary isn’t so different from their savior in the end?
We don’t know what his take would have been on this election, but we know he would have been pissed. Because, good lord, who isn’t pissed right now? And that is the gift he gave us. Who is turning our anger into laughs? Who is bringing us together around that indignation?
As John Oliver confronts this election head on, Samantha Bee comes out swinging, and Trevor Noah contributes with the occasionally potent piece, there seems to be more voices mounting up. But none like Stewart, who created the pissy campfire we gathered around every night to keep our sanity intact. He helped us laugh at the madness, so it wouldn’t consume us. Without that laughter, well, things get really weird.
Are you there, Jon Stewart? It’s me, America. We miss you.