The Wilderness | Issue .56 | 8 . 10 . 2015 | Tweet
Taught in just about every remedial junior film school screenwriting course is the dramatic technique of “coming in late and getting out early.” Meaning, when a scene has dramatic or comedic realism, it never starts from the logical beginning and has a logical conclusion. This is a necessary technique to engage the audience and get them curious about what is happening and put them in a character’s shoes. For example, a character could already be attempting to outrun an Imperial star destroyer when we’re dropped into a scene and then be escaping in a pod and cutting away before we have a chance to see where our heroes landed. This is an important set-up because this is exactly what Jon Stewart, as a filmmaker, comedian and writer, has done with his Daily Show career.
He’s getting out early.
This past weekend, fresh off a debate performance that would have made Judge Alvin ‘JP’ Valkenheiser proud, Donald Trump made the media rounds throwing shit-bombs and doing his best Biff Tannen impression for anyone around him he could find. Everyone got a flaming sack left on their doorstep: Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina and even Trump’s closest advisor (and now former campaign manager) Roger Stone, who ultimately decided that even the guy with Nixon’s face tattooed on his back had finally had his fill of crazy. Of course, web pundits and networks did their best to maintain a semblance of snark about it all, but come Monday there will be a great unfilled void in viral news sites. Social media content writers everywhere will stare hopelessly at their screens, questioning the very meaning of their existence. Why? Because Jon Stewart isn’t around anymore to provide for them or guide them. Just as the 2016 news cycle has reached Peak Trump, and Peak Absurd, the political Left in the media has lost their best tool and biggest weapon.
And they only have themselves to blame.
The thing that’s widely misunderstood about Stewart on both sides of the political aisle is the notion that he somehow thinks he belongs in the arena he is pigeonholed into, both by the Right and especially by the Left. Stewart is the affable smartass in the back of the classroom shooting spit wads at the teacher for attention. But, just like in high school, this sort of act only works if that kid remains an outcast (or at least an outsider) instead of becoming Prom King. The minute all the cool kids want to be seen around him, or start mimicking his behavior, the act dries up and becomes stale, and even moreso if that kid starts hanging around the principal as a means of validation. Stewart’s problem was never that he became less irreverent or funny over time. It’s that the web media around him became lazier and more ideologically-driven. Stewart became the engineer powering viral content for numerous websites and outlets, and with almost nothing to show for it in ratings or revenue. Bloggers and viral writers simply made it a morning routine to embed his clips with a few clever adjectives and hit “publish.” Stewart’s decision to walk, right when this phenomenon is at its peak, suggests that he’s had enough of the JuiceVoxers piggybacking off of his work for sponsored clicks.
But there was more to Stewart’s phenomenally overwhelming presence on social media and viral news and content sites, despite his middling television ratings. For all those bloggers and editors retweeting him, memeifying him, viralizing his bits, Stewart was what they all wanted to be. He was saying the things they all WANTED to say but couldn’t out of professional obligation. It was the simple “that guy over there is having all the fun, come on let’s go join him” impulse in action. The thing with comedians (and especially stand-up comedians, which Stewart originally was) is that their insecurities usually take over once they look over the landscape and see every talentless Joe trying to copy what they’re doing. For all the fawning adoration Beltway media threw at Jon Stewart’s feet, he never quite reciprocated.
What put Stewart on the map was his famous “Please Stop” segment on Crossfire with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. Whether it was intentional or planned or not isn’t the point; Stewart tapped into a vein of cable viewership that had long been ignored. Young progressives tired of Paul Begala doing his ventriloquist drinking-water trick found common ground with young conservatives embarrassed that a square in a bowtie claimed to represent them. Any shot across the bow of establishment corporate media was a good thing at the time, regardless of politics. That’s when Stewart really was at his most interesting. He could happily rip the Bush administration, but would then turn and point and laugh at the stiffs in the suits at MSNBC and CNN turning their noses up as well. Stewart was happy to sit back and poke fun at debate on cable news as theater, which it was. Not the genuine opposition of ideas but the rehearsed and assigned points of view that now dominate CNN and Fox and MSNBC alike.
Stewart has never wanted to be a part of that newsroom brotherhood as much as they’ve wanted to be a part of his New York comedy circle. Stewart, who could have had his choice of anyone as his last guest, chose comedian Louis CK instead of, say, Hillary Clinton or Rachel Maddow. That was his last gag on the media as they put their arms around him as though they were one of his inner-circle fart-sniffers. It’s like Stewart got up and joined his comedians at the back of the room and told his fellow stand-up brethren “Pretty sure they fell for it, guys.” They will never be him and he knows how embarrassing it makes them look to try. This is a fact they will come to slowly and painfully realize in their attempts to fill his void. Jon Stewart was tired of Jon Stewart destroying things on their behalf.
That has to sting the “nerd prom” brigade just a little bit.
Our ideologically-driven media has deferred to Stewart for over a decade now, looking for a reassuring nod and a green-light “GO” sign that flashed once he opened the floodgates. And in openly rejoicing over his politics (or whatever Fox personality he *DEMOLISHED* last night) they missed the entire point of why Stewart was even effective to begin with. What made Stewart watchable wasn’t his comedy, or pre-taped skits. It wasn’t even his interview style or his politics. In fact, Jon Stewart was the least interesting thing (by design) on The Daily Show. What made his show great was the variety of guests. In a single week The Daily Show‘s guests would include an author, an economist, a comedian, a pundit, a politician and an actor. It was a refreshing respite from the Letterman- and Leno-style “celebrity of the moment” applause-line asskissing-fests that had become stale long before Carson waved goodbye and departed this rock. Any partisan political punchlines were tolerable because at least the guests would be interesting. But all of that changed when Stewart and his writers realized that their playful pawing at Bush’s first term wasn’t enough to prevent a second.
After the 2004 election, when Stewart did his best to nudge John Kerry into the Oval Office and the media followed, something happened. Stewart was gobsmacked that the country rejected his gleeful prodding, and in return the media went off their collective meds. No more playing nice. No more subliminal bias. No more cheap stunts like making up draft stories or reading the names of our fallen soldiers. They were all-in for 2008. The night that Stewart shed tears for President-Elect Barack Obama was the night The Daily Show ceased being the affable misfit and became the Prom King. Stewart’s duty henceforth was to protect the legacy of the man he and the rest of legacy media went all-in for. Much like legacy media in “full pant” mode, any criticism of Obama was a criticism of Stewart himself, because to them there is no difference. Obama’s legacy is their legacy and therefore he cannot be allowed to fail.
Stewart was content to stay in a fake news world and a comedic fake reality…until he wasn’t anymore. Shortly before his departure it was revealed he took in several secret meetings with the Obama administration. Administration sources admitted to recruiting Stewart to push their messaging and agenda and he happily obliged. And that’s when Stewart sold out. Stewart became just another statist propaganda tool selling his craft for access to a historical Presidential administration, and in doing so becoming that which he mocked the most. Stewart became everything he had set out to eviscerate — and his audience, long accused of being mindless millennial clapping seals, turned out to be exactly that. Nothing but tools for an overbearing Presidential administration concerned more with looking cool to the young masses than actual policies that improve the country and the world. Washington Post reporter Radley Balko summed this up perfectly in a tweet: by simply becoming another social justice messenger, Stewart was automatically boxed into the same old tired political rules that he continuously made fun of.
On Stewart’s final day Vox ran a piece suggesting his show was racist by running a graph showing his most frequent guests were white men. It took less than 12 hours after Stewart’s last guest show for the snake to turn on him. (Hell hath no fury like an Ezra scorned.) On top of that, Stewart has been dogged by reports in recent weeks over accusations of soft racism leveled at him by one of his former writers, comedian Wyatt Cenac. Cenac all but outright directly stated Stewart’s relationship with him was complicated by racial overtones.
It’s not hard to suspect someone like Stewart — not one for apologizing for his sardonic tone — saw the writing on the wall and decided to absent himself from the suffocating embrace of a political base who, with their perpetual eagerness to grab the pitchforks and rope, were closing in on him.
Stewart was the only excuse the Left could point to as an excuse to say “See? We have a sense of humor! We have Jon Stewart! We get jokes!” while they turn around and shame comedians, hunters, actors, entrepreneurs, inventors and ad agencies for stepping even a toe beyond their rigidly-imposed politically correct boundaries. It was just last year that a Twitter mob led by feminist activist Suey Park singled out Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert’s satirical character for a comradely “struggle session” of public shaming.
It was only a matter of time before they would turn on Stewart.
The entertainment-obsessed progressive Left is a spurned lover, now wandering aimlessly in the world Stewart created for them, without a single clue on how to proceed without him. Their biggest fear isn’t necessarily losing Jon Stewart on the eve of another monumental Presidential election where a geriatric ice queen will need every weapon in her arsenal to appear hip and cool. No, it’s categorically knowing, deep in their hearts, that a new host Trevor Noah can’t and won’t replace him. Noah’s show will be more divisive, edgier and assuming. But that’s by necessity; the Noah choice always felt like an afterthought, like the high-risk/high-reward athlete a sports team signs after the player they really wanted (Amy Schumer) signed with someone else. Noah will bring the Kooky Foreign Outsider™ point of view of our wacky country to The Daily Show. But that’s a schtick that Brit John Oliver has already cornered on HBO. Noah will therefore have to be more Bill Maher than Larry Sanders, an angle which only works up to a point when dealing with network censors.
For awhile at least, on the web, we’ll still see “Trevor Noah DEMOLISHES”-led clickbait pieces. But those will come from loyalty to the format and the brand, just as Larry Wilmore’s (Stephen Colbert’s replacement) clickbait content has been diminished. Jon Stewart was of the industry and the tribe of New York comedians, palling around the clubs and parties that the New York Times editorial board attended. That’s not Trevor Noah. Viral liberal websites will certainly immediately try to make Noah their “funny black friend,” but just as Stewart ultimately rejected them, it’s highly likely that so too will the more EDGY Noah. Interest in what Stewart does with his free time now that he’s no longer on The Daily Show will dominate the chatter of fanboy journalists far more than what Trevor Noah does with his time hosting it.
Just because Stewart has stopped providing them with fresh content doesn’t mean they are simply going to stop trying to create fresh content from Jon Stewart.
As Stewart departs, the political right cheers, almost completely oblivious to the actual legacy he leaves behind. Stewart will leave a humorless scalp-hungry progressive movement in search for a new pariah to make fun of as an embodiment of the stuffy old white-guy-conservative Right. Except that’s not what the Right is anymore. The blubbery slow-witted, shaved-ape, Fuckface Von Clownstick aside, 24 million people tuned into a GOP debate last Thursday and a stage that included an African-American, a woman and two young Latinos who are at least somewhat engaged with the tech-obsessed viral media world that Stewart himself was the avatar of. Meanwhile, when the Democrats take the stage for their debates in September it’s going to look like the cast of Cocoon. For all the years Stewart has spent poking the Right in the eye, the irony is that his greatest accomplishment may well be that he forced the Right to politically engage with an American culture that has long been all too happy to ignore them. That’s something not even Andrew Breitbart accomplished.
As Stewart’s, and The Daily Show‘s, profile rose, Fox tried to duplicate it with their late night Red Eye program with a certain amount of success, but it was still the Fox network and it never quite capitalized on fully being “in on the joke” the same way that Stewart’s schtick routinely did for his viewers. Stewart’s disproportionate cultural influence made it an absolute imperative that conservatives become more engaged and aware of the media around them. The right hasn’t found their own Stewart or even their own Daily Show, but they have been awakened and are certainly more aware of his tactics and are using them to great advantage on social media, YouTube and podcasts.
The Right may not want to hear it, but they owe Jon Stewart an enormous debt of gratitude.
As viral web media on the Left plods along without Stewart — searching for Salon outrage-clicks, humorless Voxplainers on the nothingness of being, and the slow sound of the soul leaving what’s left of The New Republic — culture-oriented startups like the Washington Free-Beacon, IJ Review and Twitchy are tapping into new audiences with clever viral-driven media. Whether or not this is good journalism, or taking the way we perceive our news media down a welcome path of engagement, has yet to be determined, but one thing is almost sure: without Stewart, the Left suddenly has become as old and stodgy as their limited choice of candidates heading into 2016. Stewart was content to do his duty for Barack Obama, but exiting before he could endorse candidate Hillary Clinton is enormously damaging to both her candidacy and any Daily Show-approved narrative that legacy media would use to push back against younger and culturally adept GOP frontrunners. Stewart is getting out early, before we get a chance to see where his throngs of loyal followers will end up.
Stewart’s impact on the media landscape and the political one is indisputable, but with every tweet or blog post it was becoming clear the act had run it’s course — and it was clear not only to Stewart’s non-fans. The man who once pleaded “Please Stop” on CNN had begun participating in the same exact debate theater with Bill O’Reilly he once criticized, and basically turned into a Media Matters sockpuppet account yelling at Fox News four nights a week. He was never really the same host after returning from his directorial debut, Rosewater (which categorically bombed) and the enthusiasm to fake it for another 16 months to elect a candidate who represents everything he’s made fun of for ten years was non-existent. It seems like Stewart saw the writing on the wall and realized he had accomplished all that he possibly could; for his show, for his audience and ultimately for a President who he sold his career out for, only to have it end in disappointment. He became everything he ridiculed and his exit now is a repudiation of what viral media has become in his name.
In the closing minutes of his final Daily Show, Stewart lamented that “bullshit is everywhere.” In the end, nowhere was that more evident than with Jon Stewart himself.
– SM –