While we had plenty of good satire during the 2016 election cycle, nothing quite matched the comedic impact of the dynamic duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert when they hosted back-to-back shows on Comedy Central. Stewart and Colbert were comedic forces during the years of the George W. Bush presidency. They not only kept the public informed and sane; they also redefined the civic role of satire. Thus satire was no longer simply a comment on the news; for many it became the source of news.
This is why many people mourned the fact that both Stewart and Colbert left their posts at Comedy Central as we headed into a new election cycle. When Colbert announced he would step down as host of “The Colbert Report” in December 2014 to take over as host for “The Late Show,” it was hard to not feel that we were at an end of an era. We were not just losing his brilliant satirical persona; he was heading over to one of the big three networks and many worried this would force him to tamp down his edge.
It got worse. The next year Stewart followed Colbert’s announcement with his own, telling fans he was ready to move on and depart as host of “The Daily Show.” Then it was announced that South African comic Trevor Noah would take over, prompting many of us to be concerned that he was ill-equipped for the job.
Those of us who worried were right. Colbert’s new show was fun and funny, but it wasn’t sharp like “The Colbert Report” and Noah often seemed totally out of his league.
While the two comedians were gaining their footing on their new shows, luckily other satirists were filling the void and delivering hard-hitting satirical insight into the insanity of the election. Lee Camp on “Redacted Tonight” boosted its number of viewers because his show was one of the few to satirize both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. John Oliver continued to perfect his longer-form satire and offered a depth and critical clarity rarely seen on shorter Comedy Central bits. And Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” came out swinging, providing viewers excellent segments that pushed back on the malarkey emanating from the mainstream news and politicians. Seth Meyers also found a way to use his boyish charm to pack a serious satirical punch.
Trump was at the center of a lot of this comedy but nowhere more so than in the brilliant impersonation that Alec Baldwin offered of him on "Saturday Night Live." As Baldwin effectively mocked candidate Trump, Americans witnessed a new twist on political satire. Suddenly they could watch the power of satire play out on Twitter as Trump threw hissy fit after hissy fit. Every time Trump claimed Baldwin was awful, he proved just how good he was.
Trump also proved how central satire has become to our political discourse. Snark, sarcasm and satire have literally become a key part of our political idiom. The only way to speak truth to power in a nation that has elected a megalomaniacal reality-TV president is with irony. And the only way to respond to news coverage that takes seriously the absurdity of the Trump administration is with smart sarcasm.
Fortunately satire has been saving our nation from brain rot.
Which brings me back to Colbert and Noah, who both have seen their ratings surge since Trump's election. Noah has just logged his most-watched and highest-rated quarter ever on "The Daily Show" and the program is ranked No. 1 among millennials for daily talk shows late at night. Similarly, Colbert who had consistently trailed Jimmy Fallon in his time slot, has topped the ratings, pulling in more than 3 million viewers.
But this isn’t just about numbers. Bagging a ton of viewers doesn't necessarily mean anything in the land of satire. That's because satire depends on using irony and comedy to encourage critical thinking. It champions reason over folly, truth over lies. So its success can’t be measured by viewers; its success lies in its ability to help viewers understand what Stewart called “bullshit mountain.”
As Noah and Colbert have aimed their satire at Trump and his endless clown car of insanity, their comedy has sharpened and their ratings have surged. Colbert’s gloves came off and he returned to the sharp wit that had defined his work on “The Colbert Report.”
Trump has been an even greater gift to Noah, who perfectly zeroes in on Trump as a toddler president. Suddenly the boyish and adorable Noah has turned into a formidable satirist who consistently calls out the Trump team for its failings.
The comedy is funny, smart and powerful. Take this example from “The Daily Show” that mocks White House press secretary Sean Spicer for the way he treats reporters:
In another recent bit “So Much News, So Little Time: Nepotism, Impeachment and The Freedom Caucus,” Noah calls out the fact that Ivanka Trump is a liar. The piece starts with his asking viewers if they remember when Trump and Ivanka promised that his administration wouldn’t be nepotistic? He continues, “Well clearly THEY don’t.” It’s a smart, subtle joke. As he plays a clip of Ivanka telling Barbara Walters that she is “going to be a daughter,” he cuts in with “and a liar.”
Noah goes on to say that what surprises him is not that Ivanka is working with her dad; it is that Trump couldn’t even wait two months to give her a job in the White House. What makes the bit such a great sign of Noah’s postelection satirical force is the way the piece builds. Noah is able to show that the entire Trump administration is a house of cards, where each card is a lie, a distortion, a manipulation or an abuse.
For those of us, myself included, who worried that Noah wouldn't be up to replacing Stewart, it’s time to give Noah his due. He didn’t just replace Stewart; his satire has its own art and it's resonating well with his millennial viewers. I’m happy to say my predictions were wrong.
Noah is drawing not just the most millennials; his audience is also the most educated among viewers of late-night talk shows. Even more important, his show generates the most viewer engagement among the late-night competitive set on social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), producing the highest interaction, with more than 17 million total actions (including "likes," shares, comments, reactions, retweets). These are all signs that Noah’s viewers are not just watching him and going to bed; they are also interacting, engaging and using his comedy as a platform for citizen satire.
One of Noah’s fans on Twitter, #TrumpChats, created this tweet in honor of a recent Noah piece:
Colbert, too, has regained his edge in the Trump era. Despite Colbert's attempt to be more “neutral” in the early days of “The Late Show,” his satire isn’t about taking sides or being partisan. Instead it is about calling out folly, lies, deception, poor thinking and social manipulation. This was the type of comedy that drew his fans to “The Colbert Report” and it is helping attract them now.
Needing to defend the truth over crazy has meant that Colbert finally had to call out Fox News' Bill O’Reilly for the first time since he hosted his new show. As O’Reilly was coming under fire for sexual harassment charges, Trump came to his defense. And Colbert wouldn’t stand for that:
“Mr. President, I want to remind you that you just declared April Sexual Assault Awareness Month and there are two accusations of sexual assault I’m aware of: Bill O’Reilly’s and yours. So, maybe you are not the perfect person to weigh in on this one,” Colbert says on the show.
Colbert then goes after Ivanka and her twisted use of the word “complicit” during an interview with CBS' Gayle King when Ivanka said, “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.”
Notes Colbert: “Nope that’s not what ‘complicit’ means.” He pulls out a dictionary: “Complicit: Involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing.”
Demonstrating his sharp use of language and his ability to call out logical fallacies, Colbert continues, “You can’t just reverse the definition to make yourself sound better! That’s like saying, ‘If being a Nazi means fighting for civil rights, then, yeah, I’m a huge Nazi.’”
So if there's a silver lining to the Trumpocalypse, it's that it has ramped up the quality of our nation's satire. As Carlos Maza showed in this Vox video, “Comedians have figured out the trick to covering Trump” because satire has a “low tolerance for bullshit.”
Remember that during the Bush years Colbert and Stewart attracted the most educated viewers who consistently scored the highest in their knowledge of current issues. And it was Stewart and Colbert who were the most trusted by viewers as well.
As Jordan Klepper prepares to host a new Comedy Central show and the ratings surge for Colbert, Noah, Camp and "Saturday Night Live," we can detect a real seismic shift in public attention to satire. If the history of satire and political crisis proves true, it will be the satirists who keep the nation from spiraling into a brain-dead stupor.
After Trump was elected, satire icon Michael Moore called for the resistance to go after Trump with an “army of comedy.” Less than a 100 days in, we are witnessing our first troop surge.