(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, David Sims watches The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Next week, Steve Heisler watches The Late Show With David Letterman.)
I’ve been watching The Daily Show pretty consistently since around 2003, in peaks and troughs – my obsession with it would wane, then come back twice as strong, often mirroring my interest or frustration with the country’s political situation or the state of national news coverage. I still keep up with the show more than any other late night show, which I think is true for much of my generation – any other late-night attempts at news satire, such as Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, usually seem embarrassingly sophomoric in comparison.
Nonetheless, I’ll often proclaim to people that the show ain’t what it used to be. Now, it may just be nostalgia, something I’m frequently guilty of, but I’ve always felt that the loss of Stephen Colbert was a critical one. Jon Stewart doesn’t need someone to bounce off of to be funny, but his bits with Colbert always brought something out in him that we don’t see much anymore. As ridiculous a caricature as the character of Colbert was, their chemistry didn’t feel stagey, the lines didn’t feel like they were coming off of cue cards. The current correspondent class at The Daily Show is fine – Aasif Mandvi and Wyatt Cenac are my particular favorites – but their “characters” are less defined and their relationship with Stewart less prominent.
I may be thinking about this because, having watched the last week of Daily Show episodes, its correspondents appeared exactly one time. John Oliver, Cenac and Samantha Bee showed up for a couple of minutes in Thursday’s episode sporting comical erections at the ridiculousness of Rick Perry’s “oops” debate gaffe. It might just be a weird coincidence that the week I took notes on was almost all Stewart, all the time, but I certainly didn’t miss any of the correspondents, whose remote pieces and straw-man banter with Stewart are always the most hit-or-miss portion of the show.
But this week’s slate of Daily Shows really emphasized how big the Stewart brand had gotten. His guests used to be a mix of B-list celebs, comedian friends of Jon’s, low-to-medium grade politicians and experts hawking dry fiction books. There’s still some of that (they have hundreds of episodes to book each year, after all) but this week Jon’s guests were Clint Eastwood, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Sandler. That’s nothing to shake a stick at! But the guests’ prominence this week also emphasized how weak that portion of the show can be.
Stewart can be fantastic when a buddy of his is on the show – someone like Denis Leary or Louis C.K. that he’ll just effortlessly bounce off of. But unlike, say, David Letterman, who’s only “on” these days when he has a friend as a guest, Stewart also surprisingly good when he’s talking to an expert on some specific issue. He’s a genuinely inquisitive dude who’s willing to admit when he doesn’t know about something, making him a perfect analogue for the audience.
This week, though, Stewart was not at his finest. It’s hardly surprising that Clint Eastwood was a little sedate as a guest, that fits with his persona (I had to lean into my TV to hear what he was saying) but watching Sandler mumble about his kids and what a schlub he is for a few minutes was more disappointing, considering the chemistry those guys can have. Plus, Sandler was on to talk about Jack & Jill, a film that even by his standards is parodically terrible, lazy and bizarre, and they didn’t mention it once. I didn’t exactly expect Stewart to call Sandler on his bullshit, but a little friendly ragging wouldn’t have been out of place.
Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi both talked to Jon for much longer and the show did its usual move of putting a much longer, unedited interview online. This is admirable, in one way – why squeeze such major figures into a five-minute chat slot? But it actually encourages Stewart’s worst impulse, which is just to sit back and let people ramble on as long as they want. I imagine it’s fairly difficult to cut Bill Clinton off, and I’ve seen far more serious interviewers struggle against his long-windedness. But Stewart didn’t even try, leading to a very boring double-interview segment that goes on way longer if you watch it online. Pelosi was a little better but it’s strange to see Stewart, who can be wonderfully charged and passionate about the country’s problems and our frustrating political system, not bring that energy to his interviews.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing. For his whole time as Daily Show host, from his legendary tirade about the pointlessness of CNN’s Crossfire (which helped get it taken off the air) to his “Rally To Restore Sanity” (just more than a year ago), Stewart has long pleaded for reasonableness from news punditry, and it’s admirable that he tries to maintain a similar tone on his show, although he’s always quick to remind everyone that it’s ridiculous to hold him to the same standard as a real news program.
But still, the best moments this week came when Stewart got his ire up. His brief, measured rant about the Penn State protests about Joe Paterno’s firing was powerful stuff. His fury at Jon Corzine’s hypocritical behavior as head of MF Global doing everything he said business leaders shouldn’t do while in office was quintessentially great Daily Show stuff, pitting his puffy talking head statements as Senator and Governor against news of what led to his company’s bankruptcy. When people talk about The Daily Show being an essential part of television, this is what they mean – their staff are better than almost any investigative news team in combing through the video archives to nail politicians and pundits alike.
Plus, as good as they are, Stewart’s personality is also an essential part of those pieces. His segment dealing with Sean Hannity’s claims that NPR functions as a liberal news organization much as Fox is a conservative one was great. At no point did Stewart get polemical or preach to the choir about all of NPR’s good qualities. Rather, by mocking their foibles (playing an extremely dry quote about bulldog ants in Australia) he made his point, he was funny, and I didn’t feel patronized to.
As is often the case, though, Stewart’s best moments were when the news he was reporting on was actually crazy. The Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations (and his bizarre press conference) were excellent material for Jon to sink his teeth into. But where his glee really was in full throttle was Rick Perry’s big debate gaffe. He didn’t just snipe at Perry – he spun a beautiful monologue about how Mitt Romney is obviously being helped by cosmic forces, running down the shortcomings and insanities of all of his opponents and declaring him winner by the mercy rule. The clips everyone passes around of The Daily Show are always Stewart at his most furious or his most enthusiastic, and this was a perfect example of why.
As I wrapped up this week’s episodes, I realized that this was the first time in a long while that I had watched every day’s Daily Show all the way through, instead of just picking and choosing clips that interested me the most. The show may have lost some of its vitality, but I think it may just be fatigue from having been a fan for so long. If I was in my teens and just starting to get interested in stuff that wasn’t video games, I imagine that The Daily Show would feel as exciting and different as it did to me in the early aughts. As it is, it’s become more of a comfortable old friend that you always want to check in on but don’t need to hear from every day anymore.