Liberalism After Jon Stewart

The Daily Show and the counter-establishment.


Host Jon Stewart at 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' covers the Midterm elections in Austin with 'Democalypse 2014: South By South Mess' at ZACH Theatre on October 28, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Jon Stewart's guest on the Nov. 7, 2005 episode of The Daily Show was Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The interview was friendly, to put it mildly—the working assumption of both men was that the Republicans had wrecked the country and (quoting Stewart) "if you just stand back and get out of the way, people are going to have to vote for the other party." Stewart got some jokey answers from his guest, and closed with a question about all the "hype" he was getting just a year after coming to the Senate.

"It is true, I worry about the hype," said Obama. "The only person more over-hyped than me is you."

Stewart reeled back with laughter. "Well done, sir!" he said. "Well done! That's about the best answer I think I've ever heard."

Screenshot: Comedy Central

Neither man, obviously, was at the high curve of his hype life cycle. Stewart, who'd taken over The Daily Show at the end of 1998, had become the Crossfire-slayer, the ranting critic of bad cable news habits. Obama won the presidency in an election year when anyone driving through a college town could spot jokey "Stewart/Colbert 2008" bumper stickers. (They were in circulation before Stewart's spinoff host Stephen Colbert actually waged a joke "presidential campaign" in South Carolina.) At the nadir of the Obama presidency, in 2010, Stewart and Colbert staged the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, a joyfully confused parody of the Tea Party movement that packed the National Mall with millennials bearing ironic signs.

Since then, the young viewers who dominate The Daily Show's audience have rediscovered their cynicism about politics, and Obama. They never gave up on Stewart. For anyone growing up in the George W. Bush years, especially, he was the TV talker they trusted the most. (Stewart's 17 years on The Daily Show will have put him in an anchor chair just two years shy of the time that Walter Cronkite hosted the CBS Evening News.) The most reliable source of traffic for the many liberal-flavored news sites that have grown up since 1998 was a morning recap—with video—of what Stewart had "destroyed" the night before in his video monologue:

Stewart and his team of writers and editors invented this. Anyone fretting what will happen to The Daily Show without Stewart can cheer up by remembering 2013, when John Oliver sat in as host. Oliver had been a correspondent, another strength of the show that could endure without Stewart. (It was correspondents, for example, who got a North Carolina Republican to admit that he wanted to suppress black votes.) Oliver mastered the format so well that he got an HBO show that became an even bigger factor of "destroyer" videos. In 2014, The Awl turned the mad rush to embed Oliver's monologues into a feature, "The John Oliver Video Sweepstakes," tracking who got the most social media traffic.

That was the success of The Daily Show, and it's understandable why Stewart would move on. By the middle years of the Obama presidency, Stewart seemed to be tired of the let-me-do-your-thinking-for-you sainthood he'd earned. In 2012, the show won its 10th consecutive Emmy despite submitting an episode so weak it looked like submitters were trying to swing votes to Stephen Colbert. The aforementioned John Oliver era of The Daily Show changed up the format, and when Stewart returned—viral as ever—there was a repetitiveness to the play clip/mug for laughs/destroy target rhythm. On the right, The Daily Show became proof that liberals couldn't think for themselves, winning an audience of "people who obediently guffaw like hyenas at a glance."

This granted Stewart more power than any comparable host. Everyone covered the botched rollout of No one captured the liberal horror at the rollout like Stewart did, when he interviewed then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "If you’re a Democrat and you’ve lost Jon Stewart, you have a problem," intoned Chuck Todd and the other authors of NBC News's First Read memo. But that was just it: The assumption was that Stewart would only nail Democrats when they were halfway down the tubes already. The rest of the time, he'd be mocking conservatives, and the worst of the mainstream media; liberals would get dopamine hits from watching the results on TPM or HuffPost.

During the long and torturous removal of David Gregory from Meet the Press, NBC News met with Stewart about hosting the show. "They were exploring it in the way of, 'Maybe it’s time to do something ridiculous,'" Stewart told Chris Smith in a 2014 interview. "There was definitely a meeting. I spent most of it telling them what a crazy idea I thought it was and kind of going through all of the different reasons why I did not think it was appropriate either for me or for them. That venue feels like an Establishment vehicle. They run on access. There’s a certain symbiosis with politicians. I am a part of an Establishment but in a slightly different element."

That was one definition of "Establishment." For a very long time, Stewart represented a permanent and oddly comfortable Counter-Establishment—a beachhead where liberals could be confident that they were right and conservatives were stupid. The worst of cable news was blended in a montage that Stewart could make fun of. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell could be mocked with jokes about turtles; South Carolina Lindsey Graham could be mocked in a Southern belle accent. This defined political news for a generation of liberal Americans, but even Stewart seemed to be finding it stale.

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