Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Here it is, your moment of angst

It's no joke to call Jon Stewart and his TV show institutions.

Stewart raised The Daily Show to national prominence — to national need. Talent off camera helps, of course, but Stewart's role as canny jester has cemented the show's success and worth.

No other vehicle for political satire comes anywhere near The Daily Show for reach and dogged potency.

No one else can summon our attention so well, by standing on the ramparts, pointing a finger at the politicians meant to serve us and the media meant to alert us, and shout "Look! How ridiculous!" and make us laugh, truly laugh, at the hypocrisy.

I'd love it if editorial cartoons and satirical magazines led the pack, but they're no match for Jon Stewart, not by a looong shot. Never will be.

Now Jon Stewart is leaving Jon Stewart's TV show.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Be afraid that Comedy Central won't continue The Daily Show. As a brand, host channel Comedy Central has dropped in ratings since September, losing 17 percent of its audience, Bloomberg reports, citing Nielsen data.

Though No. 4 among late-night talk shows — behind Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman's network shows — The Daily Show ranks No. 2 among adults 18-34, and No. 1 among adult males 18-24, The New York Times reports.

The show is important to Comedy Central, which also said goodbye last year to Stephen Colbert, Letterman's replacement, and saw The Daily Show's substitute host, John Oliver, start a similar show — weekly, with more depth per topic — at HBO.

(Colbert's departure is not only bad for Comedy Central, it's bad for me. I'll never see the guy again, except in day-after excerpts online. I'm not staying up late. I have no doubt he'll shake up the late-night structure; heck, if he got rid of the opening monologue, it would shift the planets in their orbit. But I digress.)

Viacom executives indicated to The New York Times it plans on continuing The Daily Show.

OK then, be afraid that Comedy Central won't be able to replace Jon Stewart, and the show — and the young audience it reaches — will wither.

Replacing Stewart wouldn't be easy. He was Mr. Right Person at the Right Time, having worked his way into that desk from many years on the comedy and talk show circuits, always the smartest smart aleck in the room. He didn't talk topical humor, preferring topics we really should be talking about.

Stewart is the guy I don't mind saying what's wrong with me — with us.

As he demonstrates on The Daily Show, Stewart knows his stuff politically, and can draw down adroitly on a variety of pressing matters with a broad spectrum of notable figures, very much playing his audience's stand-in. Even if he's getting his analysis on the fly right before the show, he's good at owning the material.

Yet Stewart wasn't a megastar. He didn't get in his own way or deflect the message with his celebrity. Imagine someone like Chris Rock taking over — purely hypothetical example — and try to separate the message from the messenger.

Despite Stewart's rise on the national stage — and I gagged a bit seeing his reported $25 million annual salary — he still seems like your  beer buddy at the corner of the table, the one who puts things in perspective. "C'mon, you buying all that bull?" he says with a smirk and a shrug. "Here's what's really going down."

So who takes his place? Choose carefully.

Oliver was great when Stewart went off to direct his first movie last summer, and he's probably even better versed in hypocrisy, having grown up with his own brand in Britain. But Oliver already has his HBO show. And — here's where I go all Rush Limbaugh xenophobe, forgive me — he's a foreigner. More pointedly, he's British. We already know the British are going to tell us what's wrong with our country, and we already know it to be true.

It's just more effective hearing it from one of our own. No offense.

Someone from the show? Maybe. It'd be interesting to see long-time correspondent Samantha Bee host, or fairly new addition Jessica Williams (here with an intro by John Oliver), or perhaps Aasif Mandvi.

But do they have the chops, the  — heaven help me — gravitas? The Daily Show skews liberal, but Stewart is just as volatile, if not as often, against liberal hypocrites. That's the strength of the show, exposure to hypocrisy of all stripe, without fear or favor.

Which new host will be as good as Stewart at holding up the mirror at just the right angle, at throwing hypocrites' words back in their faces, at making viewers take notice that matters are not going well on their behalf?

(By the way, why does the show skew liberal? Is it a liberal lapdog? Or is it because the majority of hypocrites in media and politics are conservative? That the nature of being conservative, of slapping the hand of each and every citizen, lends itself to hypocrisy?

(The Atlantic explored this last week in "Waiting for the Conservative Jon Stewart?" by Oliver Morrison, wondering why there isn't one. Morrison pointed to some competitors that prove pale, not only by their small stage but their inability to be funny, relying instead on the old, "How about that Harry Reid, huh?" bits without context to actual news.

(One possibility that resonated with me: Liberals for some reason are better at doing funny, and conservatives better at talk radio. Though when Morrison asked Colbert his favorite conservative comedian, Colbert took a pause, smiled wide and said, "Bill O'Reilly."

(Which is my hypothesis too: Fox News and Limbaugh are really liberal satirists, their jokes so far inside that nobody recognizes them. Limbaugh and everybody at Fox News give large chunks of their salaries to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Planned Parenthood. Just my theory. Prove me wrong. But I digress.)

Jon Stewart has brought a big chunk of the young voting public to the news. Like the best editorial cartoonists, he sometimes raises news topics his viewers hadn't heard about, and gives them a chance to find out more, to find out about matters that really matter to them. And he demonstrates critical thinking, and warns us not to take issues or leaders at face value.

Without another Jon Stewart, who else — and how else — to bring healthy skepticism about the yahoos that are supposed to be serving our best interests?

Comedy Central — or some channel with as much guts and reach — needs to find as good as or better than Jon Stewart.

Otherwise, the terrorists win.