On October 15, 2004, the CNN program “Crossfire” altered its standard procedure of featuring two guests from different perspectives to have just one guest: Jon Stewart. The hosts welcomed him and encouraged him to promote his bestselling book “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.”
He immediately tore into the hosts for the way their show encouraged conflict. He complained that politicians can’t speak more freely because it’s impossible to survive a media environment where shows with titles like “Crossfire” or “Hardball” or “I’m Going To Kick Your Ass” will come after them. He said Crossfire in particular was “bad” and “hurting America.” “Stop. Stop hurting America” he said.
He called the hosts hacks and dismissed the idea that he was sucking up to John Kerry when he asked him questions such as “How are you holding up?” and “Are these attacks fair to you?”
Crossfire was canceled soon thereafter. Most people credit Stewart for not just killing the show, but bringing forth a new age of hyper-political, hyper-liberal late-night comedy. The news scene hasn’t changed altogether much since Stewart’s temper tantrum — except for featuring far less argument-sharpening debate and civil discourse than we had under “Crossfire” when Stewart went on his tear. “Crossfire” used to be one of the few places guests and hosts at least confronted conflicting views, including questions about perspectives and assumptions. It engaged the viewers, rather than ambushed or mocked them. It was also one of the few places on TV outside of Fox News where conservative views were given an audience.
The decline of civil discourse didn’t just happen on cable news shows, thanks to Stewart. He also helped kill it on late-night comedy shows as well.
Rise Of ‘The Daily Show’
Jon Stewart took over “The Daily Show” in 1999, and during the eight years of the Bush presidency the “fake news” show grew into a powerhouse. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll named Stewart as America’s fourth most admired news anchor. The show won dozens of Emmys and multiple Peabody awards. The New York Times called Stewart “the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow.”
In a gushing 2008 feature on the show in the New York Times (“Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?“) Michiko Kakutani called it “both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news.” She claimed the show was “animated not by partisanship but by a deep mistrust of all ideology. A sane voice in a noisy red-blue echo chamber.”
She didn’t list any examples of the show going after Democrats, instead praising it for its handling of the “cherry-picking of prewar intelligence, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the efforts of the Bush White House to augment its executive power.” She quoted Stewart saying he looked forward to the end of the Bush administration “as a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.” He said that Bush “conducted things” with “true viciousness and contempt.” As a sane voice would put it.
The show’s producers said they try to find stories that “make us angry in a whole new way.” Sometimes, to get the crowd properly whipped up, they had to slice and dice interviews to make targets seem like they had said the opposite of what they’d said. Sometimes Stewart just got angry at conservatives he’d invited on the show, particularly when they showed him up on his home court, as Clifford May, John Yoo, Jonah Goldberg, and various others did.
Kakutani wrote that Stewart used different comedic approaches, but that he was “often” reacting to something “so absurd” that he didn’t say anything, just stared blankly with an expression of dismay. Who can forget the pencil tapping and the goofy exasperation Stewart perfected?
Liberal Political Comedy Shows Expand
At the time Stewart went on his “Crossfire” attack, he was preparing “Colbert Report,” a new “fake news show” that would have even less viewpoint diversity than his “Daily Show.” Bill Maher had already launched “Real Time with Bill Maher” a year prior, a weekly, hour-long liberal comedy show on HBO. “The Colbert Report” satirized conservative pundit shows. It “eviscerated” and “destroyed” conservatives until 2014, at which point Colbert was given the coveted “Late Show,” replacing David Letterman.
Liberal “Saturday Night Live” alum Seth Meyers got his own NBC late-night show in 2014. John Oliver got his “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO that year, too. Liberal Trevor Noah was given “The Daily Show” slot last year. Larry Wilmore replaced Colbert, but his show was canceled in August. Samantha Bee, frustrated by the snub over at Comedy Central, launched her own political show on TBS. She and Oliver are the comedians most likely to be praised for “destroying” things.
Thanks to Stewart, late-night shows are liberal political shows, with very few exceptions, and nearly all of the hosts are alums of “The Daily Show” or otherwise inspired by his faux-news mockery.
Wilmore is enjoying success with his smart and funny new show “Insecure” on HBO. That’s good, since the comment the New York Times made of his canceled show was: “any one episode of ‘The Nightly Show’ could occasionally go for prolonged stretches without a single joke, something that intrigued some critics but failed to attract a broader audience.” He also bombed his White House Correspondents Dinner performance.
But I’m not sure that is something to be ashamed of. Let’s remember back to 2011, when Meyers hosted it and spent much of the evening mocking Donald Trump:
It’s surreal to watch this 2011 video of Obama and Seth Meyers taunting Trump about a presidential run pic.twitter.com/XkZNGmzcUx
— Business Insider (@businessinsider) November 9, 2016
Obama and Meyers didn’t bomb. Far from it. But their cruel and dismissive mockery, which they both maintained through the bitter end of this election, doesn’t look so hot in retrospect.
Absurdity is at the heart of comedy. Mockery can be a way to show that something or someone defies logic or is otherwise absurd. At its best, and at the beginning, prior to 2004, “The Daily Show” excelled at using mockery as part of its repertoire of comedy tricks. But different views than the elites’ aren’t automatically absurd. When the majority of opposing arguments are treated as absurd, the schtick wears thin.
Unfortunately, mocking opponents and hyperbolic extremism are the only thing many comics can deploy. Early in “The Daily Show’s” run, Stewart invited conservatives on his show, debated them, and showed respect to a few of them. By the end, such treatment was rarer. The shows he spawned, particularly Bee’s and Oliver’s, are not about dialogue or debate. They lack the talent to engage opposing viewpoints even at the paltry level that Stewart did.
Seriously, Where’s the Humor?
The social justice televangelists dominating late night have trouble being funny. But even actual funny people have trouble being funny when politics get in the way. Stewart always put his clown nose on when confronted about his bias in handling the news. “I’m just a comedian!” he would cry. That worked better so long as he was being funny. As my better half wrote eight years ago in a piece headlined, “Memo to the Daily Show host: You’re a comedian!”
As George W. Bush’s presidency wound down, it became obvious that a comedy crisis was looming. As you might recall, there was much media thumb-sucking over what America’s gag writers would do when they no longer had the tongue-tied Texan to kick around. To make matters worse for the comedy scribes, Bush’s eventual replacement was a well-spoken, walking civil-rights triumph who largely shared the entertainment industry’s liberal politics.
In a New York Times article last year somewhat incredulously titled ‘Want Obama in a Punch Line? First, Find a Joke,’ the most influential political comedian in America admitted he was at a loss.
‘We’re carrion birds,’ Daily Show host Jon Stewart told the Times. ‘We’re sitting up there saying ‘Does he seem weak? Is he dehydrated yet? Let’s attack.’
He never found it. Neither did his writers. Simply nothing compared to the unrelenting attacks he made night after night during the Bush administration. It was a bit sad, particularly after “The Daily Show,” “Saturday Night Live,” and a host of other comedy venues were able to find the humor in the Bush presidency.
Sarah Silverman was widely praised for her attempt to bring Bernie Sanders supporters into the fold at the Democratic National Convention. She gave a speech that got interrupted by said supporters. She told them they were “being ridiculous.” Hillary supportive media loved it. They thought it was expertly delivered and perfectly deployed for the maximum effect. And maybe it was. But Dave Itzkoff had an article about it that included this interesting tidbit:
Was there anything you wanted to do in your speech that the Democratic National Committee wouldn’t allow?
At the very beginning, when Al said, ‘I’m Al Franken, and this past year I’ve been hashtag-I’m With Her,’ and I was going to say, ‘And I’m Sarah Silverman, and this past year I’ve been with the possibly agnostic Jew.’ Because you know the Right is going to use these emails to try to separate them. It’s what they want so badly. I just felt like, let the comedian defuse it and just address the elephant in the room. But they were like, no. And they are right. They’re right. But I get so indignant. At least I’m aware, and awareness brings change, so maybe I’ll be less obnoxious.
No! She was right! It was a funny line and having a Jewish comedienne make the joke would have worked well. But putting politics about comedy at the expense of both is a great way to describe the last eight years.
Earlier this year, late-night host Jimmy Fallon had Trump on his show for a pleasant chat. The Samantha Bee crowd flipped out. Her rant against Fallon treating Trump like a human being instead of mocking and disdaining him as the rest of the “comedy” crowd did on their late-night shows went viral. The elite publications such as the New York Times wrote up many stories on the matter. It was a big to-do.
As my colleague Mary Katharine Ham said, “In 2008 and ’12, liberal comedians couldn’t be funny because Obama was too good— impervious to ridicule. In 2016, they can’t be funny because Donald Trump is too bad— inappropriate to ridicule. Makes one wonder when they can be funny.”
Ross Douthat wrote presciently that Clinton had a Samantha Bee problem:
On late-night television, it was once understood that David Letterman was beloved by coastal liberals and Jay Leno more of a Middle American taste. But neither man was prone to delivering hectoring monologues in the style of the ‘Daily Show’ alums who now dominate late night. Fallon’s apolitical shtick increasingly makes him an outlier among his peers, many of whom are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.
Some of them have better lines than others, and some joke more or hector less. But to flip from Stephen Colbert’s winsome liberalism to Seth Meyers’s class-clown liberalism to Bee’s bluestocking feminism to John Oliver’s and Trevor Noah’s lectures on American benightedness is to enter an echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape.
Watch Bee “explain” why she’s “voting for Hillary G-dd-mn brilliant badass queen Beyonce Rodham” and tell me who in the world it’s designed to speak to other than political ideologues committed to the rightness of their cause but needing a desperate bolster.
— Full Frontal (@FullFrontalSamB) November 8, 2016
Liberals very much like their comedians and their mocking. For others, the Bee sketch above is painful. It will make you question your belief that whatever else you want to say about them, Canadians are a funny people.
Even Attack Humor Requires Understanding
As late-night comics have dropped comedy for advocacy, critics have widely praised the move. Itzkoff was extremely defensive of Bee when she got mad at Fallon for treating Trump civilly. Alison Herman wrote at The Ringer of shows such as Bee’s:
There’s no line between the shows’ comedy and their advocacy; they’re one and the same. In a sense, they’ve moved past parodying the talking heads who have so warped our public discourse, in the vein of Stewart and Colbert, and fashioned themselves as an alternative to them. In September, Ross Douthat attempted to lay the blame for our polarized media landscape at Bee and Oliver’s feet. The truth is that things had fractured long before Bee and Oliver claimed their small pieces of the pie. They’ve simply given up on countering bad-faith partisanship with even-tempered civility and given a voice to a niche of their own.
In other words, the faux-civility of faux-news Stewart wasn’t even something he could pull off. Why bother pretending it was real? Herman said of Colbert, “He also managed to use his new format to do what a rigidly maintained persona could not: wear his anger on his sleeve, weaponizing the sincerity previously hidden behind his character’s mask.”
Of Meyers, she wrote, “[T]he big shift was in the openly appalled tone Meyers took toward the election, and in his willingness to branch out from an endless stream of coy one-liners into the openly prescriptive. (On Trump’s attempt to blame Hillary for birtherism: ‘You don’t get to peddle racist rhetoric for five years and decide when it’s over,’ he said. No punch line necessary.)”
Except that punch lines are necessary for comedy! Comedy is effective, even as political action, because it reveals truths, not force-feeds them. You lead the horse to water, you don’t shove his head into the lake and drown him. Effective comedians help people make connections in their own minds. People are persuaded when they are able to come to their own conclusion, not when they’re told by some shrill harpy or hectoring preacher that they’re a shitbag for voting for Trump.
Colbert hosted an election-night show on Showtime. According to Itzkoff’s must-read review, it sounds like he forgot to put the fun in funereal. For instance:
When [journalist Mark] Halperin said that Mr. Trump was ‘now on the doorstep of 270 electoral votes,’ Mr. Colbert answered: ‘Wow. That’s a horrifying prospect. I can’t put a happy face on that, and that’s my job.’ Mr. Halperin added, ‘Outside of the Civil War, World War II and including 9/11, this may be the most cataclysmic event the country’s ever seen.’ Mr. Colbert replied: ‘Um. Well. We’ll be right back after this message from Calgon.’ Few if any laughs were heard.
Laura Benanti bombed her Melania impression and apologized on Twitter later saying she knew she wasn’t funny and she wouldn’t have done the show if she’d anticipated the outcome. It got worse:
But a panel discussion that followed — with Mr. Colbert, Mr. Heilemann, the radio host Charlamagne tha God and the stand-up comedian Jena Friedman — felt thoroughly uncomfortable. ‘Anything that you want to tell us about how you’re feeling right now?’ Mr. Colbert asked Ms. Friedman. She answered, ‘I feel as if I’m about to give birth to a baby that’s already dead.’ Mr. Heilemann said he had nothing to offer that would make anyone feel better, noting that a New York Times forecast said it was 95 percent certain that Mr. Trump would win. ‘Wow, no one’s laughing,’ Ms. Friedman said. ‘This is so sad and scary.’ Mr. Colbert tried to be encouraging, saying: ‘It’s still America. It’s still a great country.’
Oh dear. It’s funny, but only because it’s so unintentional. His freakouts spilled out everywhere. You can see him ask “What the f*ck is happening?” and ask God how he could let this happen. You can also watch Meyers get emotional.
David Sims at The Atlantic loved that performance:
He was at once sharply funny and nakedly emotional. He made an effort to speak to Trump supporters without seeming entirely condescending. He acknowledged that in his position as a well-off white guy, his anguish at the electoral result was not the only perspective required on the night. He told jokes, of course, but with the awareness that jokes alone won’t be what his audience needs going forward.
Listen, it was the least bad thing I’ve seen from Meyers in ages. But do people have any idea how it comes off to those outside of a liberal echo chamber?
Trump Should Be Good For Comedy. Will He Be?
If comedians couldn’t be funny under Obama but could be funny under Bush, you’d think they’d love a President Trump. A young comic I really like tweeted this last month:
If you think Trump is good for comedy, you haven’t been writing jokes about Trump for over a year.
— Michelle Wolf (@michelleisawolf) October 13, 2016
Bee, whose preachy moralism is predicated on cartoonish villains to slay, should know this is the best thing to happen in her life. But she also said that it’s hard to write jokes about Trump.
Clearly it is, for these women and for everyone else in comedy. To make jokes about things, you have to understand them a little bit. As these post-election freakouts confirm the reality that led to the election, these comedians don’t understand Trump or his voters at all. Until they do, the comedy will suffer.
Yes, there will long be an audience for elite crowds in urban centers to have their viewpoints affirmed. There’s plenty of money to be made in making cultural elites feel morally superior. You don’t have to understand Trump or his supporters to make money and continue having the right people tell you that you are awesome. In fact, the less you know about them and more you mischaracterize them and their views, the better it is for your niche domination.
At the same time, this echo chamber of smuggery isn’t helping Americans have shared cultural goals, much less an ability to work together to achieve them.
Jon Stewart is known for brutally deriding a show that featured people of differing views civilly discussing issues of the day. He got that show killed and significantly strengthened the world where cultural elites engaged in groupthink mockery of those with whom they disagree.
The results include a further erosion of civility, a decrease in Americans’ ability to understand each other and their concerns, and, of all things, President-elect Donald Trump. Should late-night political comedy continue in its path, who knows what the future holds.