Now that Jon Stewart has stepped down, does anyone have his edge?
As Trevor Noah takes on the tough job of hosting The Daily Show, there are few convincing candidates to be the new king of US TV satire
The eulogies have been delivered, the set disassembled and the echo of Jon Stewart’s parting “bullshit-is-everywhere” monologue is fading.
What now? After 16 years as America’s leading comedy/political TV satirist, Stewart leaves no clear successor even as America enters a presidential election season overflowing with satirical promise.
Stewart was celebrated partly as the progressive voice to counter the partisan shrillness of Fox News during an era of exaggerated political division, and also in part as a comedian prepared to skewer politicians of all leanings, celebrities, the media and whoever else was deserving of news-parody.
Blatant mendacity, Stewart warned during his farewell broadcast, has become ubiquitous. He urged viewers to resist misinformation. “Whenever something’s been titled Freedom Family Fairness Health America, take a good long sniff,” he said.
But who will take on the mantle? Stephen Colbert, the other well-known satirist of the era, appears to have abdicated from satire and will now host the mainstream, broadly comedic The Tonight Show; John Oliver, Stewart’s understudy at The Daily Show, broadcasts just one night a week and is therefore not positioned for daily political commentary. Jimmy Fallon, the current king of late-night TV, is not strictly a political animal and places his emphasis on comedy. If politicians come on his show, as Jeb Bush did in June after announcing his candidacy, it’s often to parody the news.
“There doesn’t appear to be any heir to fill the vacuum – unless Trevor Noah can pull it off,” says one network executive. “If he can’t, there’s no one.” But Noah, a South African and Stewart’s successor at The Daily Show, is a relative newcomer to US TV. He’s already said he’ll move away from Stewart’s obsession with Fox News.
Sophia McClennen, a professor at Penn State University and essayist on the role of satire in the political discourse, predicts that, without the insider Colbert and Stewart were able to project, any effort by Noah to emulate their satirical commentary is liable to come off as uncaring or mocking. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose the much-needed voice to say, ‘What’s going on with Donald Trump?’ I’m not sure how funny that’s going to be coming from someone from another country. Satire doesn’t work coming from an outsider, so how’s he going to make fun of our political follies?”
Part of the answer may be that political satire is already on the move. Just as Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury was the insiders’ satire of the Reagan era, Colbert and Stewart came to represent the excesses of the Bush era and its aftermath, so the tail end of the Obama administration and its successor may require a new focus and lighter touch that reflects a changing political landscape and the way in which Americans consume media information.
For Viacom, parent company of Comedy Central, which makes The Daily Show, Stewart’s departure capped a dismal week. Shares in the company fell by more than a fifth as investors dumped stocks in pay-TV over fears the entire sector will soon be eviscerated by competition from Netflix and YouTube. After years of punishing consumers with high prices and low choice, the losses are already being called the ”Great Implosion” – long coming and richly deserved.
With TV viewership in decline, patterns of news consumption have already shifted. “Now you’ve got the Gawkers, the BuzzFeeds,” Noah recently said. “The way people are drawing their news is soundbites and headlines, and click-bait links has changed everything.”
The biggest challenge, he said, will be looking through “a bigger lens as opposed to just going after one source – which was historically Fox News”.
That suggests entrenched, and self-serving, political positions staked out by the media are looking increasing dated and irrelevant even as actual political partisanship shows no sign of diminishing. Noah’s job, predicts McClennen, will be to speak to “a global millennial generation”.
“It’s not about the Gen-Xers any more. Noah, who speaks seven languages, is going to want to build a sense of youth and of young people interested in politics across the globe. We’re going to see a different demographic and that’s what Comedy Central are hoping for.”
That global perspective, then, would be more relevant than domestic political discourse in an era when polarisation has effectively eliminated the possibility of discussion. Towards the end of their runs, both Colbert and Stewart were hinting at the futility of the undertaking. As the Canadian commentary magazine Macleans points out, Jon Stewart came in championing a sensible, non-partisan way for America but paved the way for the direct opposite. “Far from the united people of Stewart’s imagination, it turns out Americans literally want different facts … maybe Americans just genuinely disagree on everything.”
As Stewart told the Guardian: “Look, it’s endless. I go out there and comment on something and the next day there’s another identical idiotic thing for me to comment on.”
But that doesn’t diminish the achievement of Colbert and Stewart in exposing the workings of the political system and offering an alternative to the Republican takeover of what it meant to be a patriot, says McClennen. “They had a real ability to satirise the Bush administration but they did it with charisma, sincerity and a passion for wanting their country to be a better place.”
Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, shrugged off Stewart’s impact, as well he might: “He’s been after us for years. Occasionally we pay attention. We think he’s funny. We never took it seriously and he never made a dent in us.”
Last week Alex Gibney, the documentary-maker behind the Scientology exposé Going Clear – yet to be shown in the UK under threat of libel action – took Stewart to task for failing to confront Tom Cruise when he was on the show to promote Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. “What a missed opportunity,” Gibney wrote in the Hollywood Reporter. “For once, someone with intelligence, rhetorical skill and insight could have confronted Cruise about the engine of cruelty that drives his chosen religion and reminded the world that the smiling movie star sits idly by, effectively endorsing a longstanding and ongoing pattern of human rights abuses.”
Gibney went on to accuse Stewart (and other media outlets) of making deals with Cruise to not mention Scientology or Going Clear in exchange for getting the star on. Similar deals, he suggested, mentioning Bill Cosby and Lance Armstrong, are made frequently. “In protecting celebrity, the gears of power have teeth,” Gibney wrote. “The problem is much bigger than any one host. It’s the machinery of celebrity.”
Who else might fill Stewart and Colbert’s shoes? While John Oliver is often mentioned, he’s offering a different kind of insider-outsiderness that looks at issues – Fifa, net neutrality, the environmental cost of fast fashion – that while educational have little to do with the hypocrisy found in daily political life. “Until he gets off his ass and puts his show on every night, he’ll have no more impact than [talkshow host] Bill Maher,” said one executive. The wild card in the pack is Seth Meyers, former host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and currently struggling to make an impact with a traditional talkshow format in a late-night slot after Fallon’s Tonight Show. “Stewart’s retirement could be a real opportunity for Meyers. He’s very sharp politically. He could step in and take the mantle, if he’s willing.”
McClennen suggests that searching for the kind of “citizen satire” that Colbert and Stewart championed on TV may be to look in the wrong place. “The place to look is Twitter, and to a lesser extent Tumblr. You have satirical Twitter accounts with perhaps 250,000 followers that have become extremely powerful. So there’s hope that millennials, who (thanks to Colbert and Stewart) understand politics through satire, are actually taking it on.”
Colbert and Stewart went after conservatives and progressives, the media, corporate interests and other pedlars of hypocrisy because that’s the model of citizenship they believed in, and they were prepared to ask tough questions at a time when the established news media were prepared to submit questions for approval before presidential news conferences as the price of access to power.
McClennen believes Colbert and Stewart made the election of Obama and the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement possible. “They were so important, so it’s hard to imagine an election cycle without them,” she says.
To whoever assumes his mantle, and to his millions of followers, Stewart had some parting advice: “The best defence against bullshit is vigilance – if you smell something, say something.”