Does Late Night Still Matter? Jon Stewart

When Steve Allen and his producers came up with the format for the The Tonight Show over 50 years ago, I’m fairly certain they had no idea how influential they would be. Try as network late night talkers might, they can’t seem to break themselves of Allen’s monologue/ break/ bit/ break/ first guest/ break/ second guest/ break/ band or comic/ good night structure. They all follow this boring, monotonous pattern, even as the audience it was originally aimed at heads toward assisted living. The corporate suits who run the networks (soon to be cable suits for one) do not take risks. But surely somebody, somewhere once built a better late-night mouse trap for them.

Of course they did. They just put it on cable.

The Daily Show first aired on July 1996 with ex-Sportscenter anchor Craig Kilborn as host/faux-anchor. Craig’s previous experience was no coincidence. The Daily Show‘s original purpose was to make fun of news clips — think SNL‘s ‘Weekend Update’ on steroids or Talk Soup for the real world. Craig actually did do ‘real’ news (i.e., presenting clips) before, so he slid naturally into his behind-the-desk role.

The Craig Kilborn version of The Daily Show will never receive the credit it deserves from history because of what it preceded. It was darn good, though. The ‘Craig Kilborn’ that Kilborn and his producers created was a smart Ted Baxter (or a real-life Kent Brockman, for you younger Readistas). Years later, new Daily Show producers would revisit this faux-host concept. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

When Craig left for greener, richer network pastures, Jon Stewart came aboard. And the easy critical analysis is to say ‘the rest is history’.

Millions of words have been written about the significance of Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stewart himself. We now live in a much better world because of it and him. Right?

Um, no. The Daily Show is still a TV show, and entertainment. It is a Viacom product. What brought The Daily Show such buzz has been one-half Stewart and one-half luck.

We’ll start with Stewart. He is the anti-Kilborn. If the idea of a faux news anchor is the apotheosis of our comedic Age of Irony, Stewart and his show harken back to an earlier, sincere, populist style of American comedy. Stewart’s immediate comedic forebears are not the usual ones (Steve Martin, Dave Letterman, SCTV). No, Stewart is way more old-school. How old school?

Think Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Yeah, that old school.

Twain and Rogers built their humor around honest, straight-forward commentary on current American events, and current American thought. They didn’t do shtick. America trusted them as a voice of reason. They appealed to our core beliefs. They appealed to our ‘better’ American selves.

Stewart now holds that same level of national high ground. We don’t think of him as the quintessential American maybe, but we do think his idea of America should be ours.

Whoah. How did we get here?

Simple. Stewart came onscreen at the right moment in our history. Stewart took over the Daily Show in 1999, right after the mass corporate consolidation of American media entities. Where once you had a variety of outlets for public points of views, by the close of the last century we had very few.

He brought his point of view to the show. The Daily Show no longer was a clip show. No, it became an alternative, actual news show hosted by an anchor we grew to trust.

Media pundits sneer at the poll numbers that indicate how many Americans get their news from The Daily Show as opposed to ‘legitimate’ sources. They never ask themselves why. They get their news from Jon Stewart because they trust Jon Stewart.

Just like people trusted Lippman. Just like people trusted Murrow. Just like people trusted Cronkite.

After 9/11, Stewart’s star began its inexorable climb atop the media galaxy. While ‘pundits’ (if anything Stewart does lasts, may he please kill off these talking-head leeches!) predicted that it would take America a while to laugh again, Stewart proved them wrong. He got us to laugh because he was given the absolute perfect comedic foils: Dubya, Cheney, and FoxNews. He and his writers did not have to stretch very far to find outrages. It was in their newspapers and on their televisions daily.

While the media war drums beat Americans inevitably toward Iraq, Stewart was the the lone major media voice in the wilderness. Each night, he scratched his head and asked “Why are we doing this?” When Iraq turned into America’s global humiliation, Stewart was the lone major media voice spelling out all the gruesome details.

Stewart earned our trust because the rest of the mass media vacated their own responsibilities. Why do Americans get their news from him? Because he was the only one who spoke the truth for years. I repeat, years.

As serendipity would have it, Dan Rather visited The Daily Show on the first show I watched for this piece. How crazy is it that an actual ex-network anchor guests on a ‘fake’ news show, and the person we most trust is the comedian on the other side of the table. We are through the media looking-glass, America.

The worst thing to happen to Stewart’s The Daily Show is the Obama election. Stewart does not have Dubya and his boob posse to kick around, anymore. Instead, he has a rational leader whose political philosophy closely aligns with Stewart’s and demonstrably appeals to him. So yes, the Daily Show has lost some comedic steam, for sure. But the show is rendered no less necessary.

During the week, Stewart’s guests were Rather, Mike Huckabee, Gwen Ifill, and the The New York Time‘s Aaron Ross Sorkin. PBS and NPR could not book more intellectually stimulating guests. Besides this, Stewart does much better, direct interviews than anyone else. Yes, they’re as manipulated as all the others, but he still asks relevant questions.

Did you hear that, Charlie Rose? Relevant.

The stumbling block for most people is his politics, which I just don’t understand. Stewart is as middle-of-the-road moderate as you get. If you think he’s a liberal, well, you don’t hang out with too many liberals.

Case in point: his take on Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. He held his hands to his head and moaned about all the complicated, conflicting ideas of war and peace disturbing him. This is not a liberal take on his speech. That’s pretty much the majority of Americans’ thoughts on Afghanistan.

If Stewart is not as barbed with his political commentary as he was in the past, he is no less vigilant in his role as media bulldog. Stewart believes he has a responsibility to point out to us exactly how twisted and, yes, ethically bankrupt America’s ‘legitimate’ media entities are. When he took on CNBC, he again stood out as the lone voice asking why a major media outlet promoted a capitalist system it knew to be spectacularly flawed.

Stewart’s nemesis, and maybe the reason for his show’s existence, is Fox News. From the very beginning, he took on the Bill O’Rileys and Sean Hannitys for what they really are: demagogues. No different or less dangerous than Huey Long or Joe McCarthy. Like Long and McCarthy, Hannity and O’Riley play on the fears and shallow prejudices of the masses as a means to greater power or higher ratings.

I watched Jon’s critique of Fox and FriendsGretchen Carlson. Gretchen discussed on-air that she needed to Google the word ‘czar’. Stewart told us that Carlson was the valedictorian of her high school class who graduated from Stanford with honors and did post-graduate work at Oxford. In England.

Besides Stewart himself, his Daily Show has become note-worthy as a launching pad for comedian correspondents. The star-in-waiting right now has to be Jason Jones. He did a hilarious piece on the break-up of an Ohio Tea Party organization into two separate factions. It was (sadly) probably the most honest portrayal of what these groups are all about as I’ve seen from any other media source. So how phony was it?

Ugh. My head hurts.

Wow. I wanted to go right into the Colbert Report here, but I think I’ve went on enough for now. We’ll start ’10 with Colbert. Promise.

Have a safe and warm holiday season, Readistas. ‘Til next time.