Friday, February 13, 2015

Is It Too Soon To Say That I Won't Miss Jon Stewart?

-- 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.


Unknown said...

You have given Me something to think about. Thanks, Professor.

Michael C. Dorf said...

No disagreement from me but I'll always be grateful to JS for running the segment in which Mo Rocca got me to say "manjunk" on tv.

Joe said...

Colbert's interviews were a treasure. He managed to have a diverse list of guests & educate even while mostly in character.

Jon Stewart was a poor second here & he was best with entertainers. As to the rest of the show, I checked him the other night given the reports of him stepping down. His commentary on how conservatives now are negatively comparing Obama to a Muslim king was great. The absurdity was well shown.

But, I was never really a fan of Stewart's style as a whole. His mugging for the camera was annoying too. He has a great bench -- like some elite head coach in football, multiple people now have their own shows (and another might replace him). But, once Colbert came on the scene, his value as a commentator of FOX etc. was lessened anyhow.

I have not seen Colbert's replacement, but think John Oliver does a good job on HBO. I also think Jon Stewart's replacement will probably do a good job. Since I don't like Jon Stewart much and like others think he has in effect jumped the shark (it's okay -- he had a long run), I welcome his retirement.

Perhaps, he can find another fascinating story and direct another movie. I'm sure financially he is set.

Jim said...

Reading this and other critiques of Jon Stewart, I can only paraphrase Winston Churchill: Stewart is the worst host of a nightly satirical news show except for all of the others who have tried. (OK, maybe excepting Colbert, but he's gone too.) I'm not so confident that the valuable service provided by the Daily Show will continue under Stewart's replacement.

Joe said...

Another thing is that when he started, he was the primary voice out there. This was even before Maddow et. al.

Now, you have various voices on MSNBC (at least one will cover most things daily), lots of blogs, YouTube and other small time affairs, Twitter

Since Colbert and now Oliver both were great, unsure really why we should assume Jon Stewart's replacement will be a drop-off. Noting that he himself has appparently dropped off anyhow. A fresh voice very well can help.

CEP said...

The main problem with Jon Stewart is that he's interested in a lot more things than he knows enough about to actually do a good interview with non-preplanned follow-up questions; and if the "gotcha" goes awry, there's nothing else there. For many subjects, he would have been better off allowing a better-informed staff member to twist the knife... presuming, that is, that he had one.

And that's the problem with the entire news system: Such expertise as there is is as "journalists" — in how to explain, not what to explain. The ne plus ultra of this phenomenon is the military briefing, which usually makes Faux News seem informative, balanced, spontaneous, responsive to audience inquiries, and nuanced.

Tam Ho said...

The timing is curious to me. This, I presume, was not a decision he could have made lightly. So if he's been mulling it for a while, why didn't he declare sooner so that Comedy Central could have make a play to retain either Colbert or Oliver, his two obvious heirs apparent? I have to think Colbert would have stayed for the 11pm slot on CC at Stewart's salary. Besides higher (or at least the same) pay than the Late Night job, it's a format that he helped to pioneer which not only takes advantage of his acting chops far more than the other gig would, but also allows him to be political. It's a real shame that we don't have Stephen Colbert (the character) anymore.

Shag from Brookline said...

On a show or two after his announcement, Jon Stewart asked "Am I dead Have I died?" in reaction to the reactions to his announcement. Stewart will continue on perhaps close to the end of the year. He's had this gig for a long time. He's in his early 50s. What does he do next? But he's made the right decision for himself; but I shall miss him. I trust that Stewart in his remaining months will get even sharper, just as Colbert did after his announcement.

Imagine teaching the same law courses over and over for 15-16 years. Yes, the security is good and you don't have to deal with nasty clients who think your fees are too large. And to relieve the boredom the Blogosphere is available for random thoughts that sometimes relate to law, sometimes off the cuff on other topics, providing some celebrity-time as opposed to captive but sometimes ungrateful students. It is difficult giving up such a gig for what may be the unknown. So security it is.

But stewart could not just "mail it in," having to shift themes based upon events that occurred sometimes that same day. Yes, Stewart has had a lot of help, but he used that help well in delivering his product.

Now let's talk about the high costs of a legal education. Is this ripe for sarcasm by the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? Or might he do a schtick like "The Last Originalist Standing"? Jon ain't dead and I'm sure he and his staff are taking names apart from FAUX News as Stewart's stewardship ebbs. As Stewart has demonstrated, free speech is a 2-way street.

I'll miss Stewart after he's gone. Meantime, who's Mo Rocca and what's "manjunk" all about?

DHMC said...

I think Jon Stewart's legacy is an important part of what he did, and is missed in this post. The list of talent that was spawned from his show is long -- and he happily allowed that talent to develop (Oliver, Colbert, and Wilmore, to name only the most recent). And for all of the praise of Colbert, whose schtick I found a bit tiring and easy, remember that Stewart was a producer of that show, so the Colbert Report was also a Stewart creation. Stewart may have been out of his depth on financial matters, but he shone spotlights on places others ignored -- the mess at the VA, benefits for first responders to the Twin Towers, and the inestimable value of taking out Crossfire. I think, Professor, you will find in a short while that you miss him more than you now think you will.

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