-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
It says a lot about this country that, in a week that included a President's attempt to secure war-making authority from Congress, the dominant news story was the announcement that the host of a satirical comedy program would be leaving the show ... sometime relatively soon. Yet that is the status of Jon Stewart, whose impending departure from The Daily Show has been the subject of extensive coverage in the press and commentary from politicians. During his sixteen years as anchor of the show, Stewart became a very important part of the American political landscape.
I have certainly been a fan. I actually watch a lot more TV than most of the people I know, with a lot of favorite shows, but the only shows that I simply will not miss seeing are The Daily Show, its infant offspring The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (although Wednesday's installment this week was a big swing-and-a-miss), and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO. The Colbert Report used to fall into that category as well. Obviously, Stewart's brand of sarcastic, satirical political humor resonates with me, and it has translated well to other shows.
A quick search on this blog for references to Stewart and his show would certainly turn up multiple hits every month, not just in my posts, but in Professor Dorf's as well. We are clearly not in Stewart's key demographic (college students and post-college types), and we are not among the people for whom The Daily Show is the major (or only) source of news, but we do watch the show.
What The Daily Show and its progeny do best is to make it unnecessary to watch the crazy pundits and politicians who have come to dominate and distort American politics during Stewart's tenure, and especially since the Tea Party's emergence in 2010. The form was, in some ways, as important as the substance, because it was The Daily Show that perfected the art of collecting a series of clips of politicians all repeating the same talking point, or showing politicians and pundits saying one thing ("Obama should be more like King Abdullah, a real leader!") followed by a series of clips with those same politicians and pundits saying the exact opposite ("Obama is acting like he's some kind of king!"). A few years ago, Stewart even began to mock how easy it had become for his staff to do their jobs, because finding evidence of the contradictions and hypocrisy of politicians and pundits was all too simple. Yet the lunatics continued to act as if their voices had never been recorded.
Without Stewart's band of serious comedians, the world would not see glimpses of the insanity spewing from the likes of Louie Gohmert, Michelle Bachmann, Steve King, and so on. Some of those people are not taken seriously, but most are, if only because their party controls Congress, and the difference between their craziness and that of their party leaders is merely a matter of degree. Along those lines, Stewart has also been able to show just how crazy the Republican party's leaders have become, taking on McConnell, Boehner, McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the other supposed statesmen of the party.
But the best thing The Daily Show provided its viewers was an ongoing critique and expose of "Bullsh*t Mountain," Stewart's devastating description of Fox News. No one should be forced to watch anything that goes on there, but Stewart and his staff were masochistic enough to take one for humanity, and then distill the lunacy four nights each week into palatable doses. Even though Stewart occasionally lapses into lazy false equivalence (especially with his "March on Washington to Restore Sanity," or whatever that was), he clearly despises the sociopaths on Bullsh*t Mountain.
Given everything that I have written here, then, why is the title of this post so negative? Frankly, Stewart has been overtaken by the juggernaut that he helped to create, and his shortcomings have become all too clear. With very rare exceptions, his interview segments have always been non-events. Even beyond that (which, if you think about it, means that one-third of almost every show was disposable), the bigger issue is that Stewart too often reached the limits of his competence.
To take one small example, he recently interviewed HUD Secretary Julian Castro. As the interview proceeded, Stewart tried to talk about housing finance, bailouts, and so on. Although Stewart's motives seemed admirable, he was simply at sea. He started to say "TARP" almost as a safe word, not knowing whether or how it applied to the topic at hand, flailing about for five minutes while Castro smiled and tried to say something substantive.
This is hardly new for Stewart. Back in early 2009, I wrote a Dorf on Law post in which I ridiculed Stewart's gullibility in his interview of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who essentially described the very idea of insurance as a "scam." Stewart, clearly out of his depth, complimented Nocera and essentially told him that he (Stewart) now finally understood the financial scandal. (Yes, I do remember Stewart's brilliance in indicting Jim Cramer's nonsense on CNBC. I wish that that were not such an outlier.)
Similarly, when the "IRS non-scandal scandal" broke in 2013, I wrote a post in which I lamented the laziness of Stewart's response to the fake scandal, where he simply went along with the snap narrative that the Republicans had created. I also noted there that Stewart seems to become transfixed by the word "trillion," unable to put large numbers into any kind of perspective. In fact, I have been compiling a file of examples of Stewart flubs on financial topics, most of which were not interesting enough to note here on Dorf on Law, but all of which added up to the conclusion that Stewart does not bother to learn enough to speak knowledgeably about many of his topics.
In the summer of 2013, when Stewart took a leave of absence from the show to direct his movie, I found myself hoping that he would not return. John Oliver's guest hosting run was a breath of fresh air, and he made it obvious how stale Stewart had become. When Stewart did return, the show's strengths were still strong, but the weaknesses were even more obvious. Meanwhile, Oliver proved on his HBO show that one can be well-informed about even complicated topics, yet still be sarcastic and brilliantly funny.
Stewart's achievements are already legendary, and he deserves credit for helping to create a universe in which others will be able to do things even better than he did. What he did well can be (and already has been) copied and even improved. What he did poorly can be done well. Although I genuinely miss Stephen Colbert, I doubt that I will feel the same way about Jon Stewart. He was overdue to leave.