According to The Boston Globe, Jon Stewart shaped the cultural attitudes of a generation. Many others seem to agree. For me, that’s harsh. I see no call to insult the man as he steps down.
The generation in question, or so I keep reading, relies on a comedy show for its news, and engages with politics mainly through jokes. Perhaps I’m missing something, but that seems less than ideal.
“The Daily Show,” it’s said, conveys more information to its viewers than the typical network news program. I wouldn’t be surprised — it would be hard not to. Nonetheless, there’s something wrong with a generation whose involvement with politics is mostly confined to laughing at it.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s good to mock politicians. I spent my childhood and most of my adult life in Britain, and for many years was an avid consumer of its cruel political satire.
Coming to America, like most British immigrants, I found a country strangely lacking in appreciation for nonsense and irony. I ought to have found “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” refreshing exceptions to the rule — and did, in fact, to begin with. Gradually they seemed to confirm the underlying problem.
I dare say the show began as a parody of the network news program — a worthy target indeed, with its portentous anchormen and their sidekicks, hyperactive graphics, over-excited music and all the other idiotic conventions of the genre. But somewhere along the line “The Daily Show” cast itself, or allowed itself to be recast, not as a parody of that format but as a competing supplier.
Stewart didn’t satirize the anchorman — he became another anchorman, smarter and funnier than the rest.
The program came to lack a sense of its own absurdity. (If you’re curious to see what a satirical assault on the news broadcast looks like, watch some clips from “Brass Eye” or “The Day Today,”creations of Christopher Morris, a wayward genius of British TV satire.)
That might have been all right. The problem was, the program’s fans began to take it seriously, academics with nothing better to do began to take it seriously, and worst of all the show began to take itself seriously.
That is to say, American values asserted themselves. The torrent of grief over Stewart’s retirement reminds me of the rending of garments over the plight of The New Republic, another cultural icon. First that, now this. Sometimes it’s hard to go on.
Stewart famously expressed disapproval of “Crossfire,” the CNN shouting-match format. The spoof anchorman found it unseemly — an unserious way to engage in political discussion. The network closed the show down.
He attacked Jim Cramer, the hysterical loud-mouth stock-tipper on CNBC, saying he lacked journalistic integrity. Cramer turns the dull world of investing into entertainment; Stewart turns the dull world of politics into entertainment. You see the difference.
But in the end my main problem with “The Daily Show” was that it just became boring. Clip of politician saying something stupid. Extended shot of Stewart’s operatic incredulity. Audience roars, cheers, whoops. Repeat endlessly. And do it every day, because it’s “The Daily Show.” (Again, only in America.)
The format seemed clapped out to me a long time ago, but the sheer heroic stamina of performers like Stewart and Colbert remained nothing short of miraculous.
Stewart’s a good comedian and a very smart guy — smart enough, I bet, to see the problem. Once you’ve finished laughing at politics, you have to engage with it to get anything done.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.