The Jon Stewart Effect

Flash back to October of 2004.

Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, then hosts of a lame CNN show called “Crossfire” hosted Jon Stewart during the last few days of the pre-viral pre-social media internet. Stewart accused the hosts of being “bad for America” before calling Carlson a dick. The next few years would be very kind for Stewart as he raked in Emmies, book deals, sky-high ratings for Comedy Central, public appearances, and a mountain of cash before leaving the show in 2015.

Stewart’s effect on mainstream comedy and news is everywhere and impossible to underestimate. A big part of his act was to take clips from mainstream news broadcasts (he loved picking on FOX, but he took shots at all of them) and point out all the absurdities, whether it was the coverage itself, the anchors, or fallacies within the news segment. This was all fine and well for big laughs on The Daily Show, but a negative effect has been the erection of an echo chamber. News broadcasts slowly began to integrate parts of Stewart’s show as a slimy way to co-opt Daily Show viewers by passing off Stewart’s material as news. Over the years, this has degenerated into all news organizations, whether they be online or on the air, regarding all political commentary from all mainstream comedians as newsworthy. A Saturday Night Live skit is not newsworthy. Daily Show imposter Trevor Noah’s monologue is not newsworthy. Nothing that Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers says is newsworthy. Racist Bill Maher is certainly not newsworthy. And around and around the echo chamber it bounces…

This brings us to Stewart’s act itself, which was mostly political. Lest we forget, Greg Kilborn was the first host of The Daily Show when it first aired on Comedy Central in 1996, with Stewart taking over in 1999. There is extremely little footage of Craig Kilborn’s Daily Show on youtube, but what little footage exists supports what many of us recall: The Daily Show was not originally a political satire show, but rather a satire on the dullness of 90’s television news broadcasts. Furthermore, the news broadcasts of the 90’s themselves were mostly devoid of political content, instead focusing mostly on trivial local stories and the brainless talking heads sent out on field assignment to cover the stories. With Stewart’s rise to fame in the early-to-mid 2000’s, the Daily Show evolved into a mostly political show, just like the cable news networks evolved after 9-11. The moment when the popularity and cultural footprint of The Daily Show became impossible to dismiss was when Senator John Kerry made a guest appearance on the show while running for President.

The obvious consequence of Jon Stewart’s left-leaning comedy is that everyone has stolen his act. When The Daily Show featured Stewart pointing out the hypocrisy of politicians and news anchors using CSPAN footage, it was new and fresh. Now there are imitators galore, each one generating fewer and fewer laughs. Samantha Bee and Jon Oliver are two of the most glaring examples since they are protégés of Stewart that have sought their own brands, book deals, and shows. Bee is less relevant than Oliver, but Oliver seems to be the most flagrant of the rip-offs, right down to the convenient “I’m an entertainer, not a journalist” creed that Stewart was known for spouting. As for Daily Show replacement Trevor Noah, his career is doomed. He will always be known as the inferior comedian that replaced Stewart but couldn’t come close to generating the same numbers. It’s only a matter of time before Comedy Central either experiments with a different comedian (hopefully with a fresher format) or pulls the plug on the show altogether.

Then there’s Stephen Colbert, another Stewart protégé, that has taken over David Letterman’s show. Long gone are the days of David Letterman and Jay Leno yukking it up on their respective shows over news stories like Hugh Grant, Lorena Bobbit or the McDonald’s Hot Coffee lawsuit. Nowadays, whether it’s Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers, or Fallon, it’s far, far too left-leaning and political. It’s a sad, depressing day when I actually miss Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, but Jay’s show was light on politics. It may have been completely predictable, but the lack of political humor allowed the show to have its’ own act and its’ own identity. As it is, there is no discernible difference between any modern comedy show, they are all little more than pale imitators of Jon Stewart’s incarnation of The Daily Show. Not everyone in Hollywood can do the same act, otherwise there is no point in tuning in.

This brings me to perhaps the worst of the unforeseeable consequences of Jon Stewart’s rise to popularity, which is the effect upon the actual cable news broadcasts themselves. Take CNN for example. Chris Cuomo, Ana Navarro, and Don Lemon (just to name a few) are abominable caricatures unto themselves. Loud, dishonest, race hustling, identitarian, and absurd are just a few words any reasonable person uses to describe these on-air personas. It would be foolish to assume that these people think and act this way when the cameras aren’t rolling, which leads me to believe that a news network like CNN understands that they need these frauds to drum up ratings, even if only to get people to tune in to see the absurdity. FOX is no better with their brand of fraudulent bozos like Jesse Watters, Judge Jeanine Pirro, etc. Why bother to watch the comedy shows? The networks have decided to hire their own twisted versions of Daily Show correspondents that require no comedians to satirize them. Consumers can cut out the middle man and just see the jokes in real time instead of watching racist Bill Maher’s Real Time for the jokes. It is the true genesis of fake news, the only thing missing is the canned laughter.

Jon Stewart has only been off the air for a couple of years, but his brand of comedy has been pirated and sold en masse in his absence. I deign to say that the departure of Stewart from the Daily Show has resulted in a type of “vacuum” that has opened the door for other comedians to make their respective marks in show business. Unfortunately, they’ve all taken the lazy route and instead of hone their own crafts, they’ve all convinced themselves that they are the next Jon Stewart. The end result? Bad comedy. If emulation (not to be confused with imitation) is the sincerest form of flattery, Jon Stewart is the most flattered man on Earth. After all, the difference between “emulation” and “imitation”, as a young Stephen Colbert once told Bill O’Reilly, is that emulation doesn’t pay any royalties.

Ironically, it turns out that Jon Stewart hurt America more than Tucker Carlson could ever dream.

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