How Jon Stewart Killed Late-Night Comedy

How Jon Stewart Killed Late-Night Comedy

‘You’re hurting America.’ Those are the words that killed late-night comedy and gave birth to advocacy-with-jokes.
Hans Fiene
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If February 3, 1959, was the day the music died, October 15, 2004, was the day late-night comedy died—or at least the day late-night comedy became infected with the self-importance that led to its death about a decade later.

October 15, 2004, for those who don’t have it burned in their memory, was the day Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” and berated hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for “hurting America” with their show aimed at pitting Left against Right in its daily dissection of the news. Stewart, then in his prime as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” was invited on the program to crack harmless jokes about George W. Bush and John Kerry. But in the glow of the spotlight, America’s court jester fancied a meatier role for himself.

When many in the media praised Stewart for humorously lecturing people about what kind of public discourse was acceptable, it was no surprise when Stewart began telling people what kind of public policy was necessary with enough wisecracks peppered in to keep the kids interested. “You’re hurting America.” Those are the words that killed late-night comedy and gave birth to advocacy-with-jokes.

What Humor Is Supposed to Do

The comedian’s job, I believe, is to stand above the absurdity of the world, lower his rope, and invite us to laugh ourselves up out of the muck. But in transitioning from political comedian to comedic lobbyist, Stewart tied the rope around his audience and promised to humorously drag them through the political mud to a better place.

While fans of pure comedy may have seen this move as a betrayal of Stewart’s roots, it’s easy to see why he made this change. When young Americans embraced “The Daily Show” as their primary (and often sole) source of news content, Stewart found himself in the enviable position of being able to politically influence an audience that fell somewhat organically into his lap.

Likewise, while Stewart was influenced by comedians like George Carlin, who repeatedly told audiences that voting for anyone was a waste of time, Stewart never fully embraced that pure comedic cynicism. So when he genuinely believed that electing certain people or passing certain legislation would improve the state of the nation and the plight of mankind, I understood why he availed himself of the opportunity to use comedy for what he understood to be the greater good.

After all, while advocacy-with-jokes isn’t really comedy, it’s also not inherently bad—and I say this as someone who regularly produces his own brand of advocacy-with-jokes. As the creator of Lutheran Satire, I use humor to advocate for certain theological positions. I advocate for a clear presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity with the (hopefully) comedic device of inexplicably knowledgeable and hostile Irish peasants. I advocate for a rejection of papal authority by calling Pope Francis a hippie. I advocate for the historic liturgy by putting arguments for contemporary worship in the mouths of Victorian-era Englishmen.

Granted, Stewart was and remains far wittier and more insightful than I could hope to be, even if I don’t agree with him on a variety of issues. My point, however, is that, despite the gap separating us in talent and audience size, Stewart and I are rather kindred spirits in that we both seek to employ humor as a means of instructing our audiences to embrace the ideas we hold as true. Stewart made you laugh so you’d go to the polls. I try to accomplish the same so you’ll go to church. Both of these approaches are advocacy-with-jokes. Both of these approaches are perfectly commendable, but strictly speaking, neither one is actually comedy.

Jokes Are Supposed to Give Me a Break from Politics

So I don’t begrudge Stewart for turning his program into what it became. I also don’t begrudge Stewart’s disciples for creating their own “Daily Show” clones, such as “The Colbert Report,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” in an effort to exert as wide an influence as they can over this audience. I’m not terribly interested in programs of this nature, but I don’t begrudge their hosts for taking an opportunity to further the liberal cause, just as I hope secular liberals wouldn’t begrudge me if, in some strange alternate universe, TBS said to me, “Here’s a good-sized budget. Please make a show defending the Book of Concord with some Council of Trent jokes thrown in.”

But if, in an even stranger alternate universe, “The Daily Show” graduates turned on their TVs and found me hosting “The Tonight Show” and starting my monologue by asking “What’s the deal with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” I wouldn’t expect them to be terribly happy about it. After all, it’s one thing to build your own show. It’s another thing to take the comedic institutions built by actual comedians and turn them into platforms for advocacy-with-jokes.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s happening on many late-night programs. Stephen Colbert, for example, left his faux-conservative-blowhard persona behind at Comedy Central but kept the political posturing when he took over David Letterman’s chair on “The Late Show,” and the result is a show that is not so much unwatchable as it is unrecognizable. Who is this professor telling me what I should think about Donald Trump? Why is he reading the news in the spot where Letterman used to do the Top Ten List or stupid human tricks? Didn’t I put on a comedy show to climb out of this political muck? Colbert is still smart, charming, and funny in his own way. But his own way isn’t terribly palatable to the substantial percentage of Americans who won’t gladly swallow their DNC indoctrination pills just because they’re coated in yuk yuks.

Likewise, when Jimmy Fallon graduated to “The Tonight Show,” fellow SNL alum Seth Meyers took over Fallon’s spot on “Late Night.” But unlike Fallon, whose comedic stylings have always tilted more towards apolitical absurdism, Meyers cut his teeth on a version of Weekend Update that was far more influenced by “The Daily Show.”

The result? Unlike Fallon, who covered teeny bop songs as Neil Young, or Conan O’Brien, who took NBC’s cameras to watch him play old timey baseball while at “Late Night,” Meyers opts to put on his Stewart cap and invite audiences to pay attention as he wisecracks his way through a seven-minute course on why all conservatives are bigots. Killer stuff if you’re a sophomore at Columbia looking to chuckle while you feel superior to the losers in flyover country. Less so if you’re someone from the Midwest just looking for a real laugh.

How About Letting Us All Laugh Together

“Saturday Night Live” has also suffered from Stewart’s influence. Instead of Norm Macdonald, “Weekend Update’s” greatest host, who stood above the absurd political landscape while helming the segment in the 1990s, Michael Che (a “Daily Show” graduate) and Colin Jost now have comedic “debates” over gun control where, ever so conveniently, the liberal side is the only one to make an argument intended to stick with the audience.

And while Dana Carvey and Darrel Hammond’s respective caricatures of George Bush and Bill Clinton invited people of all political stripes to laugh at our politicians, current cast member Kate McKinnon has indicated she’ll never allow her Hillary Clinton impression to actually harm the candidate she believes the country needs. McKinnon is probably the best thing SNL currently has going, and her take on Clinton is still hilarious, but such transparent advocacy, even if it’s funny, is not real comedy.

For years, television critics have renamed NBC’s flagship sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Dead” every time the show struggles. But the most lethal thing that’s happened to SNL is not a temporary surge in dud sketches or an abundance of weak cast members. It’s the program’s “Daily Show”-inspired self-importance, its willingness to pull punches for the sake of achieving political victories.

“You’re hurting America.” These words marked the death of late night comedy, at least the death of some of it. But while Stewart’s influence may have driven a stake through the heart of “Late Night,” “The Late Show,” and “Saturday Night Live,” all is not lost. Jimmy Fallon and James Corden are, for the most part, finding great success by eschewing politics and embracing silly ideas like lip-sync battles or toddler choreography. Both also spend less time per episode dissecting the news from cue cards than Colbert and Meyers and spend more time goofing around with guests. The result is two shows that are far more entertaining and engaging than their “Daily Show”-modeled counterparts.

Colbert and Meyers are hosting the secular equivalent of catechism class with jokes thrown in, which might be popular among the adherents, but Fallon and Corden are following a much better model—throwing a party where everyone is invited to chuckle their way up the comedian’s rope and laugh together at the absurdity of everything.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.

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