So I was at last night’s taping of The Daily Show (which, incidentally, is an awesome experience and something I recommend anyone in the NY Metropolitan Area do; tickets are free and can be gotten here). It was a weird episode. The beginning was funny (though I’m going to show off a little here and note that they cut the John Oliver bit from what they taped) and so was the 2nd segment, and the interview, as well. But then, between John Oliver in footsie pajamas and old people having sex, Jon did something rare, although admittedly less so in recent months. He got sincere.
I know that lots of people don’t like sincere Stewart. I know that lots of people think that lots of people don’t like sincere Stewart, although, to be fair, the latter group is generally at the brunt end of satirical Stewart, so one can see how their judgement might be flawed. I am not one of those people. Now, I think that Jon Stewart and The Daily Show present some of the most consistently funny material on television today, and I would never give that up, but I think that what we’re seeing, particularly since the DC rally, is a maturation of their social critique.
To be blunt, I think that Jon Stewart is a brilliant individual. This was evident last night, when the second-to-last question an audience member asked before the show was “Describe in detail how you lost your virginity,” a question he was able to answer with grace and humor before shifting gears completely and launching into the most reasoned, intelligent, and heartfelt analysis of the Arizona tragedy I have heard. Now, ordinarily, he chooses to channel that brilliance into humor, for which we are grateful and pleased, but I honestly don’t see anything wrong with occasionally channeling that brilliance into sincerity. It does just as great a service to the national dialogue as a montage of television journalists making fools of themselves.
Ultimately, the maturation of TDS’s social critique corresponds to a maturation in Stewart himself. The initial incarnation of his Daily Show, in the late nineties, was a silly satire of culture in general. I think I once heard it described, perhaps by Stewart in an interview, as sitting in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs. Then, in the early years of this century, the show grew more focused, moving to political and economic satire, but still maintaining its comedic heart. But now, I get the sense that Stewart is tired. Comedy is still in itself an absurdity, though of a different and arguably more productive form. I get the sense that, in the offices of TDS’s studio, there’s a feeling of playing catch-up, a feeling that, no matter how many montages they show or politicians they get to incriminate themselves, this does not get to the heart of the problem. And generally, they are okay with this (because, let’s be honest, they are still making a late night talk show on Comedy Central), but occasionally, they feel the need to lose the clown mask and address the issue directly.
I think the best example of the evolution of TDS can be seen in this clip of Jon Stewart’s 2004 Crossfire appearance, the one where he singlehandedly dismantled America’s obstructive opinutainment apparatus (okay, maybe not, but I’d like to keep the moment). In this clip, he insists to Tucker Carlson that TDS is just a comedy show, that he has no real impact on anything important. Well, he’s clearly stopped making that argument by now, but the interesting part about his making it then is that he made it while influencing the programming and values espoused by a major news network. TDS has had a significant role in our national discourse for years, and for the vast majority of that time, it has done so through humor. We could stop and admire the accomplishment of maintaining that perspective over more than a decade, or we could accept that it’s all right, perhaps (and I’m going to blaspheme here) even preferable to have what is essentially America’s most trusted news show be sincere every now and again.
I’m not saying TDS should stop being funny; it would lose a great deal of its power if it did so. But I don’t mind the intermittent resurgence of Sincere Stewart. Particularly since, as we saw at 11:34 last night, there’s always Colbert to run a montage of television journalists making fools of themselves.