Like the legions of other admirers of Jon Stewart, I’m eager to hear who will
succeed him at The Daily Show. In my research on political satire around the world, Stewart has impressed me as one of satire’s most effective and influential performers.
The Daily Show started in 1996 as a parody of conventional newscasts with a focus on pop culture rather than politics. So when Comedy Central announced in 1999 that Jon Stewart would be taking over with an increased emphasis on political satire, I was delighted. I looked forward to the new Daily Show as a continuation of a strong tradition of political satire in America.
That tradition dates back to the very outset of the American democracy. Ben Franklin, often called “the first American humorist,” entertained and inspired a broad public with his essays mocking the British and his cartoon of a multi-parted snake urging the colonies to “Join or Die.” Since Franklin, jibes at politicians and their supporters have been featured in newspapers, magazines, novels, editorial cartoons, stand-up performances, and movies.
Yet satire was slow to establish itself on the new medium of television. Sponsors and the networks were reluctant to support programs that might upset powerful political and economic interests as well as substantial segments of the public. This became clear when the Smothers Brothers introduced political themes in their weekly show—President Nixon’s Vietnam policy was a particular target—during the politically fraught late 1960s. They battled with censors at CBS, and were eventually canceled. The success in the 1970s to ’90s of NBC’s Saturday Night Live demonstrated there was a large television audience for political satire. By 1999, Comedy Central had the evidence to convince its sponsors of the wisdom of offering political satire four nights a week.
More than 16 years later, as Jon Stewart prepares to step down from the program, the decision to launch The Daily Show appears to have been a good one—its current audience is estimated at over 2 million.
What accounts for the popularity of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? In addition to being an experienced, accomplished comedian who is fast on his feet, Stewart knows his audience. Though the program reaches people of all ages and genders, its core audience is the demographic group beloved of advertisers—affluent young males between 18 and 34. Stewart describes his persona on the program as a “more adolescent version of myself,” and he and his colleagues are particularly good at mocking conventional attitudes and shibboleths in a cheerful, insolent way, and telling sophomoric sex jokes laced with (bleeped) expletives.
By combining his disrespectful exuberance with sophisticated observations about the American political system and foreign crises, he managed to avoid talking over the heads of most of his audience. There are studies indicating that some people get most or all of their political news from The Daily Show, which has suggested the possibility that the program may be increasing Americans’ cynical view of politics, especially among the young. Still, the studies also indicate that most young viewers are—like the many students with whom I have discussed Stewart—quite well informed about politics. As I know from my own avocational experience composing and performing satirical songs at the keyboard, this is a critically important factor for any political satirist, indeed for any humorist, for the ability to evoke laughs is utterly dependent on the audience’s understanding of the jokes.
Another crucial element in Stewart’s rapport with his audience is his point of view. Periodically he seems compelled to tell us that he is an entertainer, not a pundit, and that potential targets for his wit include everyone with political power. He has mocked George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama: Whereas Bush was “incredibly disciplined in persuading us to do the wrong thing” in the Middle East, Obama “would like us to do the right thing, in as chaotic and confused a way as possible.” Yet Stewart’s witty rants, and the parodies by his talented cast, have clearly been framed in a left-of-center, liberal perspective—which puts the program in tune with its younger viewers, who tend to be considerably more liberal than their elders. In a segment mocking the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations are people, he fired up his base: “If only there were some way to prove that corporations are not people, show their inability to love … to see what they do when you walk in on them masturbating.”
The more serious side of Stewart comes through in his deeply felt observations on American TV news. He has a bone to pick with the increasing tendency of newscasters to prefer noisy confrontation rather than careful analysis. When Stewart was invited to appear on CNN’s Crossfire, he lambasted the hosts for promoting meaningless political brawls and demanded that they “stop hurting America.” Largely because of Stewart’s appearance, Crossfire was canceled soon after. But Fox News maintained its shrill, ferocious tone—a criticism Stewart also directed at some of the hosts on Fox’s leftish rival, MSNBC. As he saw it, exaggeration and distortion were appropriate techniques of satire—but not of news reporting.
Still, if Stewart is calling for a more measured, less sensational mode of news presentation he is not suggesting that political satire should be toned down. Indeed, The Daily Show brought a remarkable degree of satirical bite, urgency, and relevance to television. We’ve come a long way from the fearful attitude of networks and sponsors that forced the Smothers Brothers off the air.
Moreover, Stewart’s impact is not limited to The Daily Show. Former cast members Stephen Colbert and John Oliver have moved on to create their own successful shows. And The Daily Show segments are watched via YouTube and other social media in several countries, and the format has been emulated in Germany, Hungary, and India.
But of course, Stewart is not welcome everywhere. Authoritarian leaders are not inclined to emulate America by heaping applause, honors, and financial rewards on satirists. Rather they impose various forms of censorship, including bans, jail, and all-too-serious death threats.
Egypt’s Bassem Youssef modeled his TV program on The Daily Show. But when he said President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, provided so much comic material that he could cut his staff of joke writers, he was informed that “satire should be more refined, not offensive or vulgar,” and his show was banned. He was back on the air in 2013 after a coup replaced Morsi with a military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but again his program was taken off the air when his jokes were disrespectful of the new regime. There are several brilliant Chinese political satirists—but they’re located in Hong Kong or in exile in the West. And, even in democracies, the terrorist murders of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists provide a sobering reminder of the fury that satire can provoke in the minds of fanatical believers.
Yet this does not mean that political satire is everywhere in retreat. In America and elsewhere, an expanded TV presence has been joined by a great eruption of satirical “fake news” magazines and websites like The Onion. So while I await the news of Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show with great interest, that decision is less crucial to the future of political satire than the one in 1999 to appoint Jon Stewart. Certainly a new host will change the show in some respects. But The Daily Show will undoubtedly continue to fulfill the role of the jester through the ages—telling truth to power and making the constantly depressing news of the day a little more palatable through the priceless gift of laughter.
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