Reviews of The Daily Show (1996) and related work

The Daily Show (1996Moving picture, 1000 hours)

Seen in 2016.

This review refers mainly 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 every episode from 2003 to Stewart’s farewell in 2015. I watched up to and including September 7 2016 (episode 2825) under Trevor Noah’s tenure, followed by select portions of the Youtube feed until Noah was replaced by a series of guest hosts in 2023.

Under Stewart, this was the premiere satirical news show. In a 2016-11 CBS/PBS interview with Charlie Rose, Stewart called it a “public-affairs comedy”.

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.

The early years had a lot of field pieces about unimportant eccentrics that were only interviewed to be laughed at, but with the hiring of Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum, Stewart’s triumph over his original writers, the Indecision 2000 coverage of a failed 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 times I was frustrated that the show 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. Despite dealing constantly with the manufacturing of consent, Stewart would dismiss critics like Noam Chomsky without comment and fall into some of the pitfalls of propaganda, like the idea that the US military is somehow full of great people hamstrung by politicians, or support for the auto industry bailout (e.g. 2008-12-04).

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, as well as their fawning and bias. You could argue that Bob Hope and his writing team invented recurring comedic public commentary on the political news of the day, but I don’t think Hope had anything like this understanding. TDS made both the substance and the surface of politics funny, which is deeply impressive. According to a 2020 study (“Political Humor, Sharing, and Remembering: Insights from Neuroimaging”, Jason C Coronel et al., Journal of Communication), the method really works to get young people engaged in the understanding of their society. TDS 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 to check their facts and not repeat themselves despite the long and lengthening history of the show.

The Vietnam war and other destructive US policies in the 1960s created a vital counterculture, including protest music of a wit and popular appeal that had no counterpart in the “war on terror”. After the Dixie Chicks were vilified for speaking out against the impending invasion of Irag in 2003, other musicians backed away from the subject, tending to describe a commercially safe sense of patriotism or apathy towards the war of aggression. The counterculture, insofar as it ever entered the mainstream, seemed to centre instead on TDS’s “Mess o’ Potamia”. 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 had made the host himself a leader of the new counterculture. Shorter pieces of media-critical “news comedy”—e.g. Brass Eye—can be brilliant, but Stewart’s TDS was a masterpiece of consistent, collective, institutional craft with institutional memory, as well as the humour and the conscience of Interesting Times (1994).

Trevor Noah, who succeeded Stewart, brought a sane non-US perspective but showed his age. In his first year, he more frequently delighted in personal attacks, vulgarities and fluffy identity politics. According to the official oral history, Noah sought a younger audience. 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 Last Week Tonight (2014), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2015) and Full Frontal (2016) (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 skewed to resemble 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. In Stewart’s later years he had occasionally put long interviews “up on the web” but, again according to the oral history, Stewart resisted involvement in social media. Two years into his tenure, Noah had found a solid footing, outshining Meyers with his “between the scenes” monologues, exclusive to the web.

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. 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: Chappelle’s Show (2003), “The Legend of Hallowdega” (2010), Last Week Tonight (2014), The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015), Full Frontal (2016), Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (2017), Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas (2018), The Break (2018), Patriot Act (2018), Cunk on Earth (2022).

moving picture fiction series

America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction (2004Text)

Ben Karlin (writer), David Javerbaum (writer), Jon Stewart (writer).

Less dated than the show.

References here: Laws & Sausages (2018).

text spin-off non-fiction

The Colbert Report (2005Moving picture, 117 hours)

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

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

A pastiche of US conservative political-pundit shows, this is a spin-off lacking the ensemble cast of TDS. The narrow focus on a difficult concept was novel at first, but stretching it to the length of TCR did not make sense. A satire on self-promoting, elitist TV celebrities who claim to be working for the people would gain more by satirizing (attacking) specific targets. Bill O’Reilly, implicitly the model and foremost target of TCR, 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 carried 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?).

The type of gaslighting political discourse satirized here was crucial to the radicalization attained by the US right wing ten years later, but the intellectual honesty of TCR never bloomed, leaving tolerably bland irony. It did not work to stop the process of division and radicalization. Complicity in the space of the popular was practically all that remained after 300 episodes. 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.” (Interview by John Dickerson, uploaded to the “Face the Nation on CBS” Youtube channel on 2015-12-28). After leaving the character behind, Colbert came to be funnier as himself on the Late Show from 2015 onwards.

References here: The Daily Show (1996), 13th (2016), The Opposition (2017), The Break (2018).

moving picture spin-off fiction series

‣‣ “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!” (2008Moving picture, 60 minutes)

Christmas special. A little too bad for its own good.

moving picture spin-off fiction

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History (2016Text)

Chris Smith (writer).

Read in 2019.

The history of Jon Stewart’s tenure, primarily from a production perspective.

It is an oral history, and useful as such, but it’s also a highlight reel, and certainly not a conventional digest or analysis. It’s subjective at times, sometimes treating office politics and contract negotiation as hearsay, but the money takes its proper place.

text document non-fiction

The Opposition (2017Moving picture, 42 hours)

Seen in 2018.

I saw the official excerpts on Youtube, not complete episodes.

A reapplication of the concept of The Colbert Report (2005), replacing the target of Fox News in general and Bill O’Reilly in particular with the target of right-wing conspiracy in general and Alex Jones in particular, Jon Stewart having parodied Glenn Beck in the intervening years. On the Report, Colbert played a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot”. Klepper is exactly that for a more bizarre political landscape. Like the Report, The Opposition aired immediately after The Daily Show.

The correspondents on The Opposition were all very good, which was crucial. Though I liked the show, it’s a good thing that it was cancelled in 2018 in favour of Klepper (2019), or else its falseness would have run it into the ground. Alex Jones’s lawyer, Randall Wilhite, once defended his client on the grounds that Jones’s public persona is a character, which I assume is true. This means Klepper was playing a character named Klepper in imitation of a character named Jones, played by Jones himself. This Baudrillardian gambit—the late-night comedy equivalent of A Scanner Darkly—was not creative and cannot be productive.

References here: The Break (2018).

moving picture spin-off fiction series

“The Daily Show Correspondents’ 92nd Street Y Panel” (2020Moving picture, 56 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

An unedited 2020-01-22 panel discussion with the contemporary lineup: Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, Roy Wood Jr., Dulcé Sloan, Jaboukie Young-White and Michael Kosta. Jordan Klepper and Trevor Noah are absent. The panel is hosted by MSNBC journalist Alicia Menendez at the NYC 92nd Street YM-YWHA cultural centre.

moving picture document non-fiction