The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?!
Can you believe it’s barely been three years since Jon Stewart stepped down from hosting The Daily Show? When he rocked up to The Late Show in July to drop an anti-Trump rant, it felt like a battle-hardened warrior coming back down the mountain to vanquish the new generation of evil and own everybody’s asses one more time, and somehow it felt like that to me despite the fact that as a financially destitute Millenial Australian, I never actually watched his show (even clips of it were Not Available In My Country). One of my favourite things to think about is America’s shadow over me and my country, and Jon Stewart is a massive part of that – his show, his politics, his rhetoric style have been present in all the Gen-X heavy online groups I’ve traveled in as far back as when I was fifteen in 2006. I’m in the world that Jon Stewart made, and I don’t know how I feel about what I see when I look at it.
His most immediate influence, of course, was on his fans. For years, I’ve been told that the main appeal of the show was in how it let leftists know that they weren’t crazy – that yes, someone saw the same things they did and also thought they were completely fucked up. Unspoken but clear is the fact that Stewart is charismatic and very, very funny – ‘not only does this guy agree with me, but he’s way funnier and smarter than I am, so clearly I’m on the right track’. There’s also the oft-cited note that Daily Show viewers tended to be better informed than, like, CNN or Fox viewers; I’m inclined to agree with the observation that the viewers were already informed when they got to the show, but I’d also suggest that the show did inform a large section of younger, more impressionable viewers, as well as creating an environment where they’d be able to find out more on their own – coming back to me, again, a lot of my early politics were picked up from Daily Show fans who, even when they weren’t quoting the show directly, were bringing Daily Show attitudes and politics into my sphere of influence.
Moving outside my personal experience and into cultural touchstones, Stewart’s influence is clearest in the imitators and students that came in his wake – Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. To my eye, all of these shows were made by talented, funny people, but all of them suffer to some degree from trying to play at being The Daily Show and falling just short. Liberals are frequently accused of smugness, and all of these performers and writers end up creating a smug aura because they’re projecting a ‘Jon Stewart voice-of-a-generation can-you-believe-this-shit’ role (Last Week Tonight is the most successful because it consciously has a totally different premise, intending to act as a primer on different issues, and is still burdened by a need to be Like The Daily Show in performance). The thing I find most interesting about Jon Stewart’s actual performance in the clips I have seen is that he’s never trying to be exasperated – he was never setting out to be the voice of a generation of liberals, he was never trying to teach liberalism to the viewer, he was just making jokes and chose to make them out of his genuine exhaustion with politics.
My point with all of this is that Stewart inadvertently created an archetype, that of the Exasperated Liberal, who Speaks Truth To Power and Can’t Believe We Have To Keep Dealing With This Shit and Utterly DESTROYS The Enemy (as well as its spin-off, the even more dreadful Exasperated Conservative). I completely believe him when he says TDS was never supposed to be people’s real news source and people should absolutely not take it seriously, but the fact is that people did. You ask me, a humble outsider, to pick the most iconic TDS moments, it would be Indecision 2000, the 9/11 episode, and Stewart’s appearance on (and genuine destruction of) Crossfire, and that really covers the full gamut of what The Daily Show means to me – the first created the show’s day-to-day sense of humour, the second created its sincere beating heart, and the third was a moment of righteous ownage, and of course that’s the one everyone tried to do over and over.