In 1999, Jon Stewart – up to that point a jobbing comedian – had an idea.
Others had turned the nightly news into fodder for comedy. Stewart would turn it into comedy, full stop.
He would repeat back the ridiculous things people in power said and did, often in their own words. Stewart’s trick was adding almost nothing. He’d raise an eyebrow or splay his body across his desk and bulge his eyes, and the audience understood it was time to laugh.
The Daily Show wasn’t a step forward. It was one taken way back, to the tradition of the Catskills and a trumpet off-stage going waa-waa-waaaaa to let you know when you’d heard the punchline.
Stewart abandoned the show in 2015, just as the mess he’d helped create was getting ugly. Now he’s on his way back. This week, Stewart announced his first hires for a new current events series on Apple’s streaming platform.
In some ways, Stewart must be returning to TV feeling a little like God after he’s left humanity to its own devices for a few generations: “Aw, jeez, what have these idiots been up to while I was gone?”
Stewart’s starting point was fun. Things should be more fun.
In a playful 2004 interview with FOX host Bill O’Reilly (remember when things could still be playful?), Stewart bridled at the idea that he was doing “news.”
By that point, he’d become a power broker as a talk-show host, running a sort of Meet the Press for people too hung over to wake up early on Sunday mornings. O’Reilly complained that then U.S. presidential hopeful John Kerry had given him a pass and chosen to do Stewart’s show instead.
“What do you want the audience to get out of your discussion with Kerry? Just yuks?” O’Reilly asked.
Stewart, delighted by the word “yuks,” couldn’t help but turn this fundamental question into a bit.
“First of all, I so rarely refer to it as ‘yuks,’” Stewart said. “Schnicks. We call it schnicks and giggles.”
This was the heart of The Daily Show – silliness as a response to everything.
None of what Stewart did was meant to be taken seriously, even the really serious stuff. Unfortunately, some people didn’t get the joke – by the mid-aughts, a fifth of young American adults cited The Daily Show (and its copycats) as their main news source.
What was the secret? Stewart took real news – things that actually mattered, complicated issues with more than one angle – and turned it into easily-digested satire. Then he poured it down the throats of affluent college kids, the sort of people who would soon be in charge. This service spared viewers the bother of chewing.
In culinary terms, Stewart was liquefying chicken. It’ll fill you up the same way, but you shouldn’t confuse it with dinner out.
The Daily Show traded exclusively in the ridiculous. That left no room for the sublime. And when everything is foolish, nothing really matters.
On the one hand, this was the fun Stewart intended – laughing at your leaders, mocking the goofball things they said. It works when the movement doing so is relatively small and counter-cultural. Every functioning democracy requires a vibrant resistance to keep it honest.
But this wasn’t resistance. This was a commercialized brand of nihilism.
On the other side, there was nothing. What’s the representative straight news show of the 21st century? Where can you go to explore complex ideas being discussed at length with an eye to finding difficult answers? Such a show may exist, but no one’s watching it – more importantly, no one’s talking about it.
Without competitors, Stewart’s vision of the news spread chaotically. There is a direct line between The Daily Show to Donald Trump and the splitting in half of the American consensus. News shows require news. That’s always happening, as a function of existence.
But comedy shows require comedy. Not every leader is comedic, and not every policy is worthy of mockery. Trump and his policies represented a content jackpot.
This is why Canada couldn’t find its own Daily Show – though lord, how our broadcasters tried. Our governments are too tedious – and, for the most part, sensible. We lack the raw material for good comedy. This is why our best comedians end up in the U.S., masquerading as Americans. Everyone wants in on that gold mine.
After more than a decade on top, Stewart’s show had become a particle accelerator for political and social decline on the horizon. It wasn’t what Stewart did – it’s what the people who watched him became.
While they were engaged in “news” and getting vaguely informed, they were also becoming less curious, less inclined to see things another way, and meaner.
Stewart’s humour was gentle, but in order to compete with him, many of his heirs decided to see if taking the low road got you there faster.
Nowadays, no news that hopes to catch wide attention can be dispensed in its pill form. It must be easily reducible to a 30-second clip that can be repackaged and written about by other news platforms, creating a virtuous circle of meta-commentary on the news for people who find news boring.
Stewart was Marcel Duchamp. You can admire the first guy to put a urinal in a gallery and call it art – that is at least original.
But the next guy? What’s his excuse? What’s he got to offer except another out-of-place fixture, this one brought to you by Budweiser and Uber Eats?
Despite his best intentions, Stewart’s legacy is a perversion of the news. Now he’s taking another kick at what he started.
Is his next shot another big idea, or just an idea about an idea he once had? In other words, does he have something new to say about the world he helped create, or will he end up satirizing himself?
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