Night-Wing Media: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's Lessons in Discourse
Through the levelling power of humour, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cut through the culture's sensationalism and panic to remind us of the baseline of normality beneath all the hysteria.
When Jon Stewart's version of The Daily Show concluded on the 6th of August of this year, Stewart's legacy, and that of his counterpart and long-time collaborator Stephen Colbert, was already firmly established. Beyond the ratings, aside from the accolades (including Emmys, Peabody Awards, Satellite, Critic's Choice and Television Critic's Awards), each show had become entrenched filters in the dissemination of news and culture, with each host – both Stewart's faux newsreader as first responder to the day's events and Colbert's meta-ironic pundit caricature imploding its partisan positioning --offering indispensable satirical commentary on the day's events.
By the end of Stewart's run, the sensibility of the show he reinvented had stretched into every corner of the news spectrum, with several official and unofficial spin-offs each using its template to explore their own distinct televisual niche. Colbert's The Colbert Report had used the language of celebrity punditry to expose the hack partisan bias that too frequently paralyses rational debate on 24 hour news networks. Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show continues to use the discussion forum format to interrogate the inequalities of race and class that often go unspoken. John Oliver's Last Week Tonight uses the language of longer-form investigative journalism to expose the fundamental hypocrisies beneath the sound bite exterior of complex issues. All of these self-reflexive commentaries – on the media, on politics, on the relationship between the viewer and the sharply dressed talking head on TV -- stem directly from Jon Stewart's original show, and the ingenious way in which it used the language of the television news bulletins to dissect the spurious discourses perpetuated, often unspoken, in the fields of politics and the media.
It was in their respective final episodes -- each uniquely designed to reflect upon their hosts' idiosyncrasies -- that both Stewart and Colbert's shows best managed to playfully summarise their program's mission statements, and the legacies that each left behind. Colbert followed through on the full absurdity of his character's histrionic narcissism, killing-not-killing him into immortality, and Stewart threw a raucous party for his friends, thanking his collaborators and reminding the world that neither bullshit, nor the opportunity for real conversation, ever ends.
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In the lead up to the final episode under Stewart's tenure, The Daily Show had been reflecting upon its host's contributions to American discourse in the most sarcastic way possible: showing clip packages of his bad singing, his self-depreciating interviews, his terrible accents; all signing off with escalating misspellings of his name. Whenever a current guest would lean in to inform Stewart that he would be dearly missed he waved the suggestion away, uncomfortably modest. In a sense, this attempt to downplay the sanctifying of Stewart was fair; although the man and his writers had given poignant satirical context to some truly despairing material over the years, their day-to-day job was always primarily to spin a half hour of gags out of almost nothing; trying to separate the social commentator from the hamster on the comedy wheel was somewhat missing the point. Nonetheless, it was impossible to not get a sense of Stewart's impact on contemporary culture.
To hear members of the news media like Rachel Maddow and Richard Engel reflect upon his legacy, Stewart had served a form of community service. At the very least, his show was a way to sugar-coat the news of the day, a bulletin for comedy viewers who might learn something in spite of themselves. At its best, however, it was a wake-up call -- a means of chastising politicians and the commentariat into fact checking their work and being more responsible with their rhetoric, lest they find themselves shamed on Comedy Central that evening.
Of course, if one had payed any attention over the intervening years -- and as Stewart himself repeatedly explained – the exact opposite of this appeared to be true. With the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle, with patriotism and the existential dread of terrorism offering easy deflections to short circuit reasoned debate, with the news media frequently whipping 'Breaking News' into speculation and sensationalism -- all of which escalated exponentially while Stewart watched -- The Daily Show seemed to merely be fighting a rising tide of hysterical hyperbole.
In truth, the show, and its host, were never static, disaffected comic observers, firing off criticism from the sidelines. They were participants in a devolving discussion, compelled to adapt and change themselves to meet the shifting sociopolitical climate they sought to comically reflect.
For the first few years of its lifespan, The Daily Show appeared to be little more than a conveyer belt for topical gags riffed off of a handful of the day's major and more esoteric stories. Under the three years of its first host, Craig Kilborn, it played more as a televised odd-spot column, smirking at the headlines, trawling the country for local crackpots with absurd beliefs that could be mockingly filmed for mean-spirited field pieces, and punctuated with knowingly superficial interview banter with minor celebrities. It was a parody of news programs, aping their gravitas but willfully devoid of content.
When Kilborn left and Stewart took over the changes were at first relatively imperceptible. Gone were some of the cheesier gimmicks ('5 Question' and 'Dance, Dance, Dance') and the contemptuous tone to the field pieces gradually eased, but the show remained geared toward spinning superficial quips from a handful of the day's events.
And then the 2000 election happened.
George W. Bush and Al Gore ran against each other for the office of the President of the United States, engaging in one of the most hostile, protracted, and labyrinthine electoral processes in history. With the lingering Clinton/Lewinski sex scandal embarrassing the Democratic party and some truly vile dirty tricks from the Bush campaign clouding the Republican nomination, the whole campaign began ugly and only got worse. By the time the entire process had collapsed into a stalemate tie – because a bunch of Florida residents couldn't use push cards – America was suddenly watching the democratic process be turned over to the shady machinations of a partisan political machine that cared little for the rule of law (something Justice Scalia, would later repeatedly tell people to just 'get over'.)
Newscasters, in the interests of remaining 'objective' reported the claim and counterclaim of every participant no matter how unsubstantiated or skewed. Partisan suits squabbled over unwritten legalities. There were lengthy debates over the difference between a 'dimpled' and 'hanging' chad. People had to learn what a 'chad' even was. The world had suddenly become utterly absurd. So logically, an absurd commentator was required.
Looking back, it's no surprise that the coverage of the election won The Daily Show the first of its two Peabody Awards; Stewart not only provided context for the escalating lunacy of the time, his was one of the few voices able, through the allowance of satire, to actually call out the ridiculousness of a democratic process held hostage by the entitlement and greed of the few.
A year later, when the aftermath of the September 11 attacks gave rise to the bunkered panic-station sensationalism of the 24 hour news networks -- of colour-coded terror alerts and the magic powers of duct tape -- Stewart returned to the air to simply ask his audience if they were okay, and to remind them that in the depths of grief can come resolve. Over the following months of insanity it was The Daily Show, a comedy program, that frequently seemed to be the only voice of reason, cutting through the sensationalism and panic to remind people of the baseline of normality beneath the hysteria.
From that point onward, while never abandoning his principle duty to make dick jokes and cheap puns, Stewart became a powerful voice in the nation's capacity for introspection, simply because he, unlike so many others in the media landscape, was willing to try. After Hurricane Katrina, his voice captured the raw, angry horror of a nation trying to process the callousness and ineptitude of a government that had abandoned its own people to squalor and death. He watched the world go to war in Iraq on the back of grotesquely insubstantial evidence. As 'WMDs' and 'yellow cake uranium' and Colin Powell waving a vile of anthrax at the United Nations were ubiquitous, Stewart was one of the few voices in the media consistently calling those 'facts' into question. He charted the disappointment of the promises of 'change' and 'hope' offered by the Obama White House, speaking truth through the guise of farce, as NSA spying went on unchecked, drone bombing programs escalated seemingly without oversight, and further reports of torture and rendition and overreach went on unabated.
As the global financial crisis unfolded, unleashed by the corruptive practices of a system engineered for exploitation, Stewart was one of the few to hold not only the banks and lenders to scrutiny, but the hypocrisy of those in the media who had failed in their duty of care. Jim Cramer, a pundit for CNBC, had feverishly spruiked the companies responsible for the fall despite their illegal actions (and with giddy sound effects), right up until their collapse; then, while the private investors and homeowners who had followed his advice lost everything, had condemned the victims, dodging any culpability and lecturing them on their foolishness. But famously, as Cramer feigned indignation that Stewart would dare question his integrity, all Stewart had to do was run video of his myriad promises to watch him wither.
Despite the fact that Stewart was renowned for his capacity to mock the news of the day, what was most impressive was his ability to give voice to the unfathomable, embracing both the horrible absurdity of life and allowing for the silences that cannot be filled. This was perhaps best exhibited as he watched the plague of American gun violence play out over the years, escalating with each incident of murderous brutality. Over the years he became the harshest critic of this redundant spiral -- the same denial and obfuscating soliloquising from defenders of gun deregulation; the same calls for change going unheeded as congress stalled into apathy -- and his final commentary on the racially motivated mass murder of nine people at a church in Charleston exhibited a weary despair at this tired, seemingly eternal routine.
What became clear in his every broadcast was that Stewart hated lies -- 'bullshit' as he would come to call it in his final show. More so, he hated the knowing systemic perpetuation of lies. The angles of intimation, speculation and faux-questioning that substituted for argument. It was why Fox news became such a ghoulish case study over the course of his tenure -- an echo chamber of prescribed falsehood that confirmed itself by inference. As Stewart said at his 'Rally to Restore Sanity':
'If we amplify everything we hear nothing.'
If we allow lies to stand, if we surrender ourselves to exaggeration and hysteria in all its forms, then we lose the capacity to perceive anything at all.
Despite watching the dire spectacle of these patterns unfold again and again, Stewart never surrendered to tired cynicism. He used the platform afforded him to champion good causes, and agitate for change. He praised the heroism of the 9/11 responders, and he crusaded for the passage of the First Responders Bill, a legislation that had been turned into a bartering chip in Washington politicking. Stewart held to account the mealy-mouthed politicians who publicallpagy praised the responders, but privately sank the bill that would protect them. His act of shaming was the only thing that prevented the disgusting farce from continuing unquestioned by a disinterested media. He welcomed voices like Malala Yousafzai and Jimmy Carter that supported charities and spoke out for human rights. He raised money for autism research, and helped develop and run a veteran training program to offer returned soldiers invaluable industry experience.
His comedy, too, too often dismissed as 'pessimistic' by those who clearly never watched the show, actually came from a place of optimism and hope. His humour was not about declaring 'Look at how fucked up we all are', it was about suggesting that we not keep falling face-first into the same puddles. He was disappointed in systems and rhetoric that failed, but it was only because he clearly believed that these things could function for the benefit of society, if only they were treated with the right respect (or lack of respect, where appropriate). Even when he took Fox News to task, it was not because he thought the network was an easy punching bag, or a symbol of the end times (even though it is both of those things), but because he believed that Fox could do so much better, but perversely, chose not to.