Good riddance, Jon Stewart: How Trevor Noah could revitalize "The Daily Show"

"The Daily Show's" brand of comedy has become stale and predictable. It's time now to hit the reset button

Published March 30, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart                    (AP/Victoria Will)
Jon Stewart (AP/Victoria Will)

On Monday morning, South African comedian Trevor Noah was announced as the next host of "The Daily Show."

While Noah is a relative unknown on the national stage, with only a handful of late-night appearances and three "Daily Show" segments to his credit, his elevation is nonetheless great news for fans of the fake-news program. This isn't just because of his comic chops, on ample display in the clips available online, but also because he appears to represent a break from Stewart's mode of satire — and that can only be a good thing. While there was once a time when Jon Stewart felt vital to America's political conversation, that moment has now passed.

Stewart's "Daily Show" had its breakout moment during the 2000 presidential-election debacle, meeting the absurdity of hanging chads and SCOTUS-mediated outcomes with that patented brand of biting satire that we have since come to expect. Subsequently, against the backdrop of an increasingly dire Bush presidency, Stewart came to represent something new and exciting: an unapologetically liberal, no-bullshit worldview -- exactly the voice that Democrats needed, and at exactly the right time. That he managed to seize the zeitgeist while appearing at 11 p.m. on basic cable only added to that aura. By the next election cycle, Stewart was the undisputed champion of American progressivism.

What felt refreshing 10 years ago has been showing its age for some time now -- at least since "The Rally to Restore Sanity," an anodyne affair that famously revealed, more than anything that came before it, just how toothless Stewart's brand of commentary can be. But in truth, the "Rally" was just the clearest signal to date of what already should have been evident from the prior decade of his career.

It's often been noted how a murderer's row of Bush administration heavies -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, torture-memo architect John Yoo -- have graced the "Daily Show" soundstage and been treated with kid gloves by Stewart. More instructive, however, is one of the lone exceptions to the rule of gratuitous civility: Jim Cramer, the CNBC investment guru whom Stewart made into a financial-crisis whipping boy in 2009 -- a fate that felt both insufficient and wildly disproportionate, given the far greater crimes of far more powerful (if less visible) entities.

Therein lies the problem with "The Daily Show's" style of political commentary, and with media criticism more broadly: While Stewart was never far from correct in his diagnoses of American politics -- he would probably be the first to tell you, for example, that this country's problems are intractable and systemic in nature -- there has always been a tendency on his "Daily Show" to reduce complex issues down to narrowly defined conflicts of ideological theater, with discrete heroes and villains, and severely limited stakes. This dramaturgical bearing has succeeded in producing a kind of emotional catharsis for viewers. But, while that certainly makes good television, it also means that the impact often attributed to Stewart has, by and large, been superficial.

To wit: When you make Jim Cramer the avatar of Wall Street greed, even a victory means nothing more than a decline in "Mad Money's" demo.

This isn't a problem unique to "The Daily Show," and to pin the blame entirely on Stewart would mean falling prey to the very same hot-take tunnel vision under indictment here. While much ink has been spilled over the past several years about the astringent powers of satire, of its essential contributions to representative democracy, the fact of the matter may well be that, as a necessarily reactive form of commentary, satire is fundamentally unable to produce much in the way of real, sustained progress.

(To use an imperfect metaphor: While the bad guys are making off with the loot, satire is back at the crime scene taking notes.)

Nonetheless, it's instructive to consider these failures, because no matter how overstated Stewart's reformist bona fides, he has had an indisputable impact on the tenor and form of political conversation in this country.

As Steve Almond wrote in a much-discussed essay for the Baffler in 2012:

[Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's] sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

And maybe that's all there is to it: Whether with Stewart at the helm, or Trevor Noah, or any other comedian who might otherwise have been tapped to host "The Daily Show," the type of political comedy practiced on a Viacom-owned TV network will never be anything more than a mild psychic balm.

But as long as we are talking about the close of the Stewart era, and considering what the selection of his South African replacement might presage, I'd like to suspend disbelief for just a moment and imagine what the future could hold:

In a perfect world, "The Daily Show" might assume a more radical posture, less content than Stewart's has been to call foul from the sidelines even while accepting the terms of a broken debate. What does a more radical form of "The Daily Show" look like? Who knows. But a biracial comedian born and raised in an actual police state, who grew up with the legacy of radicalism's most powerful modern achievement, feels well positioned to usher in a fresh perspective, one less beholden to the strictures of America's decidedly un-radical political culture.

Will Noah do that? It's hard to say. And there is something admittedly less than ideal about shaping our expectations based solely on the 31-year-old's biographical data. But one way or another, "The Daily Show" appears to be headed in a new direction. And for those of us who have both fallen in love, and become disenchanted, with "The Daily Show" over the past decade and a half, a new direction is exactly what's in order.

By Peter Finocchiaro

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