Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Goodbye Jon Stewart, America's Next Big Star

Well, that's it then. The world is officially coming to an end. Jon Stewart is leaving 'The Daily Show'.

I'm not sure what to write. I'm a huge fan of 'The Daily Show' and this loss is going to hit me hard, especially in the lead up to the next American elections. I've been watching 'The Daily Show' for the best part of a decade, despite its sporadic appearance on UK schedules forcing me to watch it via (ahem!) 'less conventional means'. Yet if you love satire, then you'd know it's worth the struggle of finding it. For a generation or so, America has been making the best satirical news shows and 'The Daily Show' was the womb from whence the rest sprang. People usually cite 'Saturday Night Live' as the place where American (and Canadian) talent is first spotted but, for me, that accolade should go to 'The Daily Show'. Steve Carell spent five years there. John Oliver found his voice there before hosting his own show on HBO which is a beautiful thing to behold and the current pick of the satirical shows. Stephen Colbert began as a Daily Show regular before spinning off in his own show and is now about to transcend to the biggest nightly show on American TV, when he takes over from David Letterman.

In this context, Jon Stewart announcing his departure is not surprising. If I'm honest, 'The Daily Show' has lost its edge in recent times. Sometimes the writing is weak, the jokes the worst kind of vulgar material not really suited to intelligent satire. Too often it's been an example of the pornogrification of culture I keep writing about. Perhaps Stewart recognises this himself but I wonder what has motivated him to quit. He recently directed his first feature film which has been highly rated. Maybe he thinks it time for him to move to greater things. Yet I'd also understand if he feels a little jaded at seeing the people discovered on his show moving on to greater fame. Colbert now has the honour of following Letterman. Carrell is one of America's best film comedians. Oliver's HBO show is everything 'The Daily Show' should have been. 'This Week With John Oliver' takes aim at a target and does what only the best satire can do: reduce it to a steaming rubble of hypocrisy and filth.

With all that success, it has been too easy to overlook Stewart who, in my opinion, was the best of them yet whose career has not really moved on. Bill Maher you could understand existing in the periphery, enjoyed by a minority who enjoyed the darker horrors that the satirical mind could imagine. Stewart, by contrast, was a bastion of intelligence and wit capable of projecting that solidity into the mainstream. I always believed he was destined to be the next Letterman. That role was never one I imagined for Colbert.

Colbert's show, though fun, was often deeply irritating and I could go weeks not watching it. Playing a mock right-wing host rarely got stale but it was the things that Colbert did around it which I most disliked. He seemed genuinely star struck. I've never quite knew how to think about his use of the deeply controversial Henry Kissinger, who could always be guaranteed to turn up and do a comic turn. Colbert would also promote his own goods in (at first) an ironic way, which became a non-ironic way once the sales started to increase. Getting his audience to push his book to the top of the Amazon charts might be what a real right wing firebrand might do but it sat uncomfortably with the show's underlying liberal agenda. Too often it celebrated the power of the dollar over the power of quality, wit, and independence. Ice cream, children's books, books for adults: there was nothing that Colbert wouldn't sell with his name attached. I often wondered what would have happened if his faux bids to become President had somehow turned real. I could never tell if he genuinely had the ego that would have led him to attempt to carry it off. I just hope a more humble and natural Colbert emerges in the Letterman slot. The worst excesses of the old Colbert won't be an easy to stomach if he attempts to do them as himself.

Meanwhile, I hope 'The Daily Show' gets the host it deserves and some new writing blood can raise its standards. As much as I thought 'The Colbert Show' slot would be in safe hands, I can't find myself warming to Larry Wilmore. It's probably a personal thing but I find his voice deeply grating and too much for late night TV. 'The Daily Show' certainly has a stable of regulars, all of whom could do the job. However, my choice would be Samantha Bee, who has for a long time been the standout performer on the show. This, of course, pretty much guarantees that she won't get the job. I definitely walk where the zeitgeist lies thinnest.

Meanwhile, I'm eager to know what Stewart intends to do next. I'm probably more a fan of the man than the show, so I imagine my viewing habits will change and I'll follow him to wherever he ends up, assuming his future is still in TV and providing it is broadcast here in the UK.  If not, then it's in the lap of the internet gods and I might not get to watch Jon Stewart again. Which makes me again lament that these are sad times. The end of a real golden age of American satire. I wait to see if it's followed by another.

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