It’s funny to think that the Daily Show ever belonged to anyone other than Jon Stewart, who took the reigns of the Comedy Central program in 1999. It first started with ESPN anchor and wannabe funnyman Craig Kilborne in 1996 with a modus operandi of man-on-the-street interviews (some of them rather mean-spirited) and other entertainment news, rather than political satire.
It’s Stewart’s soul that has since infused the show, which has been skewering both the right and the left of the political spectrum (but, let’s be honest, mostly the right) since 1999. Wow, 1999. Think about everything’s that’s happened since then. The end of the Clinton presidency, Y2K, 9/11, two Bush presidencies, twoObama presidencies, the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the Arab spring, theFerguson unrest, gay marriage has become legal in all 50 states, cannabis use is legal in a handful, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and the internet in general has changed everything. All the while we’ve had one constant: Jon Stewart.
What was so original about the Daily Show was that it was born in the era before blogs. It arrived prior to the influx of a million different outlets each packaged every single event giving it spin and trying to co-opt it for whatever political and financial gain they could muster. Fox News and MSNBC both also launched in 1996 but Stewart was the real visionary behind where the media was going.
Just look at what he did, night after night: he would take a political happening, put it into context, make a few jokes about it and move on to the next item. The Daily Show was essentially the first blog and Jon Stewart was the liberal answer toMatt Drudge, who launched the Drudge Report in 1996 and was gaining momentum on the internet at the same time.
It took conservatives taking over the government, however, for Jon Stewart to truly become vital. During a recent segment, Stewart was so befuddled by ridiculous statements made by Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee that he was speechless. He just showed a series of clips, grunted and pointed, and let the audience realize the insanity of Huckabee’s statements. That’s what Stewart did through eight long years of the George W Bush administration. He was the one bastion of sanity in a world that, to liberals at least, seemed like it had gone completely mad.
Stewart would show Bush and his cabinet of cronies and then make cracks at the insane things they had done. But they weren’t cheap shots. Stewart would remind viewers of statements they had previously made that they contradicted. He pointed out the flaws in their thinking, and would satirize the absurd logical conclusions of their otherwise illogical governing process. That’s what Stewart did for so many: put the world in perspective and showed us that we were not alone. There were other logical, thinking people out there who thought that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all of Bush’s other gaffes (from the stem cell research debate to the time he appointed his own unqualified lawyer as a supreme court nominee) were an embarrassment for our nation.
During this time the news became more shaded to reflect the viewpoint of those watching, especially as Fox News allowed the redder minds in America to be exposed to the talking points the Bush White House was putting out into the world. Somehow Stewart, the anchor of a self-described “fake news show” became the pole star in what journalism should look like. Remember Stewart’sfamous appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 when he told the hosts they were “hurting America” with their theatrics. Stewart and his cohort Stephen Colbert became the way most young people get their news, according to a 2010 study by Pew Research Center.
Speaking of Colbert, Stewart was never in this alone. In fact, his roster of correspondents have gone on to do great things on their own, chief among them Colbert, who lorded over his own fake news program before graduating to CBS’s prime late-night slot. But think of everyone else who got their career started under Stewart: Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, and Olivia Munn (Aziz Ansari even interned). And let’s not forget that before John Oliver became a viral video hit-maker on HBO, he was a correspondent and Stewart substitute. The Harvard Business Review goes so far as to call him a “Superboss”one of the figures in the industry that has spotted and cultivated talent better than any others.
After Obama was elected, Stewart had to change, not only with the political times, but also with what was happening in the world at large. Once a forerunner to blogs, he was now the blog police, chasing down the rumors about the president and his birth certificate, for instance, and proving to the right how wrong they really were. He was once again the voice of reason. Through years of hard work and a shift in the political winds, Jon Stewart became the establishment.
It’s all of these things that made the Daily Show a super power – a stop on every promotional tour, and a must for every candidate seeking serious office. It wasn’t just the size of Stewart’s audience, which usually averaged shy of 2 million viewers. It was Stewart’s credentials and reach. All liberals, even those who didn’t record the show, were fans of Stewart’s and knew that he could be trusted. An appearance on the show, whether it was by Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai, or Judith Miller, had the potential to go viral through the echo chamber of Facebook and liberal websites. These clips could change the shape of the debate, cast in whatever terms Stewart decided.
The Daily Show always claimed it was fake, somehow below the fray of usual journalism, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t above it either, doing the investigations that more shallow cable news shows didn’t bother to. It was what we’ve come to expect our news today to be: synthesized by smart people, placed in the context of the world at large, coated with the sugar of entertainment, and packaged to be consumed how we want to watch it when we want to watch it. Like your favorite news website, the Daily Show is 50% aggregation and 50% voice.
The Daily Show wasn’t part of the news, it was the news. No, it is the news. And it’s going to be hard to imagine a media landscape without Stewart at the helm.