The Daily Show (1996 IMDb)

Viewing

Seen in 2015.

Review refers to Jon Stewart's tenure. The only stuff I've seen from the Kilborn era is a little of the early Stephen Colbert. Specifically I've seen 40+ episodes in the 1999-2002 range, then literally every episode from 2003 to Stewart's farewell in 2015. After his tenure I watched every episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah up to and including September 7 2016, episode 2825.

Categorization

Satirical news show, talk show. In a 2016-11 CBS/PBS interview with Charlie Rose, Stewart called it a “public-affairs comedy”.

Commentary

I first became aware of TDS from randomly channel surfing across a Rob Corddry field piece on the Iraq war (or possibly Afghanistan, ca. 2003). He says he'd have to change his name to become a famous correspondent, to something bizarre, like “Wolf Blitzer”. It struck a chord, but it was least a year until I stumbled on the show again and caught up. By the time The Colbert Report (2005) was spun off, I was hooked. I remember writing a brief essay on it for a film studies assignment in 2007, around the time it got big in Sweden. TDS was a stable point in my life for 10 years. It's what I used to wind down after a day's work, seeing yesterday's show on Comedy Central over dinner for years on end. When it ended I had spent approximately 0.3% of my life watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, often distractedly.

At times I was frustrated that it didn't go more into polemics like the Jim Cramer interview on 2009-03-12, the Bullshit Mountain monologue on 2012-09-19, or the unscripted outrage at police violence on 2014-12-03. Stewart would dismiss critics like Noam Chomsky without comment and fall into some of the pitfalls of propaganda, like the idea that the US army is somehow full of great people hamstrung by politicians, or support for the auto industry bailout (e.g. 2008-12-04). The early years had a lot of field pieces about unimportant weirdos that were only interviewed to be laughed at, but with the hiring of Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum, the Indecision 2000 coverage of a disastrous election, and more sharply with 9/11, the show matured to the point where Stewart could go on CNN's Crossfire in 2004 and doom that whole show from the position of a guest.

At its best, TDS was tightly fact-based and maintained a magical balance between humour and incisive analysis of hypocrisy: a kind of comedy that was enlightening and encouraging, as opposed to the more detached, cynical and pseudoscientific angle of Dennis Miller Live (1994) and many other news-driven comedy shows. TDS was reassuring less because of its filter bubble than because it revealed the artificiality of regular news shows: their incentives toward negativity and spectacle in the manufacturing of consent. TDS's writing probably helped shape my political world view in early adulthood. I was always impressed by the ambitions of the writers in material from behind the scenes: consummate craftsmen, careful not to repeat themselves despite the long and lengthening history of the show.

Comedy Central's 48-day “Your Month of Zen” marathon leading up to the conclusion of Stewart's tenure drove home the monumental nature of the achievement: From box office takes in lira and merely cheeky Lewinsky jokes in the halcyon days of the late 1990s, where email was still referred to as ”Internet e-mail”, across 16 years, to where Stewart revealed that the sitting US president he'd had on his show several times had also summoned him to speak privately, because Stewart's hard work and superhuman charisma had captured a big chunk of the nation. Shorter pieces of media-critical “news comedy”—e.g. Brass Eye (1997)—can be brilliant, but Stewart's TDS was a masterpiece of consistent, collective, institutional craft.

Trevor Noah, who succeeded Stewart, brought a sane third-world perspective but showed his age. He more frequently delighted in personal attacks, vulgarities and fluffy identity politics. In one of the funniest episodes of his tenure, 2016-06-15, his only contribution to the opening was to choke Jordan Klepper. Noah's coverage of the July 2016 political party conventions was loaded with the polemics I wanted Stewart to do more often, but without Stewart's sophistication, simply taking a sane party-political stance using the phrase “fuck you” sincerely. By adopting this terminal mode of expression instead of trying to be funny, Noah violated what Stewart (again in the Charlie Rose interview of 2016-11-22) called “the Daily Show paradox”: In order for the show to be funny, Stewart would only “catch and release”, puncturing hypocrisy but undercutting any such attack with a laugh and then slipping away. Driving the blade deep neither clarifies the point nor makes the show funnier.

By September 2016, sharper comedic news summaries were available from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (2016), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2015), Last Week Tonight (2014) (all three hosted by TDS alumni) as well as Late Night with Seth Meyers (2014) (especially the segment “A Closer Look”, based on Meyers’s SNL run but quickly becoming a carbon copy of TDS). Colbert's own interview with Noah on September 15 showed the latter as self-interested and boastful. Around the same time, the Hola Firefox plugin was defeated, at least temporarily and perhaps unintentionally, by Comedy Central. I transitioned to watching selected parts of the international feed on the then-new show-specific Youtube channel.

A year into the Trump presidency, Stewart said of the clickbait economy and the partisan epistemic crisis, “I think that I contributed to that culture.” (“Jon Stewart and Robert Smigel Craft a Comedy Benefit at a Polarized Moment”, Dave Itzkoff, New York Times 2017-11-13.) He did. Quite likely, TDS would have had fewer negative side effects if, like Last Week Tonight, it had been less about the churn of daily events and even more about the mere identification of lies and hypocrisy, an ancient province of comedy. However, the pursuit of truth cannot be entirely separated from political orientation. Stewart was right to point out how the right-wing media, like Fox News, is more partisan and less interested in journalism, science and objectivity than its left-wing counterpart (cf. “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election”, Rob Faris et al., 2017-08-16).

References here: Scanners (1981).

series

Spin-off:

The Colbert Report (2005 IMDb)

Viewing

Review applies to the first 300 episodes (up to August 16th 2007, with Andrew Keen).

Categorization

Pastiche of US conservative political pundit shows. A spin-off lacking the ensemble cast and having a more narrow focus.

Subject

Stephen Colbert plays a well-intentioned twit named Stephen Colbert, who clings to conservative US economic, political, religious, sexual and racial dogmas and insecurities with infectious verve. Most of the show is commentary on recent events, followed by a five-minute guest interview.

Commentary

Inherently a very difficult concept to keep interesting. A satire on self-promoting, elitist TV celebrities who claim to be populist would gain more by satirizing (attacking) specific targets than by running to such great length on non-specific hot air. Bill O'Reilly, implicitly the model and foremost target of TCR, has attended the show as a guest. Commercial concerns trumping a genuine interest in maintaining a civil intellectual debate seems to be the main reason why Colbert's feigned insincerity sometimes carries an edge of real hypocrisy.

Colbert's greatest moment was at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Association dinner, when he said more pointed things to the president seated a couple of metres away. That performance was funny, held a rational message and still achieved the necessary “complicity in the space of the popular” (animal liberationist Steve Baker; a degree of complicity is “a prerequisite for any effective loosening of fixed meanings”; cf. Lawrence Grossberg's “No democratic political struggle can be effectively organized without the power of the popular”, in Adoring Audience; when is this paper due by the way?).

Complicity in the space of the popular was practically all that remained after 300 episodes. The intellectual honesty never bloomed, leaving tolerably bland irony. Colbert himself said: “That's one of the reasons I stopped the old show, is that I had a sense of where the country is. I think people don't really want constant divisiveness. I really don't think they want that, and that's what I was aping. I thought ‘I can't drink that cup anymore,’ because I don't think people really want to hear it.”1 After leaving the character behind, Colbert came to be funnier as himself on the Late Show from 2015 onwards.


  1. Interview by John Dickerson, uploaded to the “Face the Nation on CBS” Youtube channel on 2015-12-28. 

References here: The Daily Show (1996).

series

Christmas special:

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008 IMDb)

Commentary

A little too bad for its own good.

movie