Jon Stewart announced this week that he will be stepping down from hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central after a 16-year run. While there are plenty of comedians who use politics for joke fodder, few have had as much impact on the American political scene as Stewart has during his Daily Show reign.
The show’s format subverts the role of the traditional evening-news anchorman (or what Brits call – more honestly – a newsreader). During the postwar years, iconic figures like Walter Cronkite were seen as the trusted voices of the nation; Stewart, adopting the same pose (sitting at a desk with an image behind), has spent years mocking the modern versions as puffed-up blowhards, unwitting stooges and defenders of the powerful. Indeed, with the demise of the nightly network news, it became commonplace for pundits to remark that more young Americans got their news from Jon Stewart than from conventional sources.
Stewart’s heyday, in my view, was during the years of George W Bush’s presidency. His jokes regularly dined on the rich material provided by the Bush-Cheney administration’s ‘war on terror’, the Iraq War, the poor response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis, to name the most obvious. For all his laughs at the expense of Republicans, he seemed different because of his claim to be opposed to all forms of partisanship, Democrats included. In 2004, he famously broke from his comedy persona to appear on CNN’s Crossfire – a shouting match that pitted a liberal versus a conservative – and scold the two presenters for ‘hurting America’. Despite occasional gasps of ‘I care’ sincerity, Stewart’s shtick has been to cast a cynical eye on the world, and during the Bush years, that struck a chord with the many who were disenchanted with American politics.
Indeed, the deep cynicism of that period is something Barack Obama addressed directly during his 2008 presidential campaign, with his promise to bring ‘hope’ and ‘change’. And it was with Obama’s ascension that Stewart lost whatever edginess he may have had. Rather than turn his fire on the new powers-that-be in the White House, Stewart has largely played the part of loyal court jester (with rare exceptions, such as his mocking of the inept Obamacare roll-out). He has moved in lockstep with conventional liberal views in the Obama era: he moved on from attacking establishment Republicans to ridiculing the fringe Tea Party, and then took on Fox News. In recent years, his show has increasingly relied on finding clueless rubes from the flyover states for a laugh. The air of condescension and moral superiority is thick.
When I say the Obama years have not been Stewart’s best, that’s not because I believe his political insights have become less astute, or because he is too partisan. It’s mainly because he has played it too far too safe, and that has made him, well, kinda boring. Stewart goes for the easy laugh from an audience that is so easy to predict. He doesn’t challenge today’s conventional wisdom, he doesn’t make people squirm - and his comedy has suffered for it.