Magazine article The New Yorker

No More Late Nights

Magazine article The New Yorker

No More Late Nights

Article excerpt


Few genres on television are more reliably disappointing than cable news and the late-night talk show. One delivers very little news; the other delivers very little pleasure. Yet when, sixteen years ago, the comedian Jon Stewart took over "The Daily Show," he did something radical: he took the two formats and reformatted them, creating a series that was not merely useful and funny but emotionally powerful.

In Stewart's hands, "The Daily Show" levelled up, from a program that resembled "Weekend Update"--a delivery device for over-it potshots--to a consistently scathing and original media critique. For young viewers in particular, "The Daily Show" provided a more trustworthy daily news summary than almost any show on Fox News or CNN (a low standard, admittedly). But Stewart's series also provided a psychic salve, especially during the worst parts of the past few elections and the run-up to the Iraq War. If you were driven nuts by the twenty-four-hour shouters, if you couldn't bear to watch any more flashing chyrons and Sam the Eagle gravitas, here was your catharsis. Like "Get Your War On," David Rees's post-9/11 comic strip, "The Daily Show" became a gathering place for the disenchanted--a place that let viewers know they weren't crazy.

For Democrats, the final run of Jon Stewart, along with the retirement of the meta-version of Stephen Colbert (whose creator is now headed for David Letterman's desk), is a loss. By stealing the role of the class clown from Rush Limbaugh and the like, Stewart and his cadre re-branded left-wing politics as sharp and outrageous, the hipper way to see the world. Over the years, Stewart changed, too, from a leather-jacketed Gen X wisecracker, into the equivalent, for many viewers, of Walter Cronkite. His brand was decency. For his generational cohort, those Olympic champions of eye-rolling, Stewart was a valuable corrective: he revived the notion that satire might be an expression of anger or sadness, the product of high standards, not a nihilistic game for know-it-alls.

Early on, Stewart had a habit of making "little me" remarks, in which he'd shrug off his own influence. Such poor-mouthing never suited him, particularly as he began blurring boundaries, jumping from the fake fake news to the real fake news, visiting "Crossfire" to beg the talking heads to "stop hurting America." (It must have been the cherry on the top of Stewart's career to see that show cancelled, twice.)

To some critics, this type of behavior turned him into a sanctimonious scold. (As Will Rogers put it, "A humorist entertains, and a lecturer annoys.") Others, including Jamelle Bouie, in Slate , argued that Stewart's show was not galvanizing viewers but in fact sedating them: watching the host vent about hypocrisy was enough social action for the day. Bouie, an early fan of "The Daily Show," attended Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," where he was frustrated to hear Stewart reduce Washington gridlock, in his speech, to "a case of bad manners and not deep-seated ideological differences about government and its place in the world." Bouie felt let down: in his eyes, Stewart was not wrestling with complicated ideas but suggesting that debate itself was a dead end.

The truth is that Stewart was often at his most exciting when he got down in the dirt, instead of remaining decent and high-minded, your twinkly-eyed smartest friend. …

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