Though no one knew it at the time, “The Daily Show”’s August 31, 2012 broadcast in Tampa was the last time that Jon Stewart would cover the Republican National Convention. Stewart’s monologue to the audience about “the invisible Obama,” from today’s vantage point, inspires the most misty-eyed nostalgia: It’s Stewart at his clear-eyed, appealing-to-sanity best—trimming down the bluster, spin, wonky posturing, and false equivalence that mark so much political rhetoric in this country to some core essential truth.
It’s also a monologue in which he half-jokingly predicted Donald Trump’s candidacy.
That night, he said: “The world and the President that Republicans describe bears so little resemblance to the world and resemblance that I experience. And now I know why: There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see.” He’s talking about the occupant of Eastwood’s empty chair, but the quest to get at that kernel of truth is one that cuts both comedically and critically.
Then the camera cuts to Stewart’s menschiest face—eyes wide and innocent, lip nearly quivering. It’s a face only Stewart can deliver so well; a combination of both being in on the joke and being deeply ashamed by it, being both the MC dropping the mic and Steve Urkel saying, “Did I do thaaat?” And then he delivers the kicker: “But look: Invisible Obama is great for my business. I’m still sad Trump’s not running.”
This prediction turned out to be true twice over. Trump did run, and Stewart’s business—the business of commenting on the news with humor and liberal bias—mushroomed. Stewart isn’t anchoring “The Daily Show” anymore, but his former employees are everywhere. John Oliver is now at HBO anchoring “Last Week Tonight”; Samantha Bee is at TBS with her own “Full Frontal.” Stephen Colbert went to CBS to take over the post vacated by David Letterman at “The Late Show.” Stewart may be mostly retired, but his influence on late-night political satire is so ubiquitous that it is the status quo; “The Daily Show”’s style of commenting on the news is now how we comment on the news.
But that spread of influence has come at the expense of the show itself. Without Stewart—and with his collaborators and protégés now competitors—“The Daily Show” is not the nearly uncontested force of cultural prominence it once was.
This Friday is the 20th anniversary of “The Daily Show,” which started back in 1996 with Craig Kilborn behind the desk. (Stewart took over in 1999.) And though “The Daily Show” is still Comedy Central’s flagship show, it is significantly less inspiring than Stewart’s show — espousing a type of simplistic bro-comedy that mistakes Stewart’s superficialities for his strengths. Trevor Noah’s South African roots can be an enormous comedic asset, but often just serve to make him feel distant and uninvested in the material. The show as a whole reveals signs of mismanagement. And the competition is merciless.
In the vacuum left by Stewart, it’s not just his heirs that are fighting for airtime at the RNC. “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” is following its protocol of the last few conventions — two live shows, one this week, one next, and taping in Cleveland the rest of the time. It’s going up against a lot of other convention-related programming. “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is airing live both this week and next week. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” will broadcast live on the final day of both the RNC and the DNC. Also on Wednesday, “Late Night With James Corden” is airing its “Carpool Karaoke” segment with First Lady Michelle Obama, and “Saturday Night Live”’s “Weekend Update” is doing a live show. And just for kicks, Bee repurposed one of Herman Cain’s old campaign buses and stuck a big picture of her head and the “Full Frontal” logo for “A Very Special Full Frontal Special,” airing Wednesday night from Cleveland.
This RNC — the fifth for “The Daily Show” — is an attempt for Trevor Noah’s tenure to make a lasting impression on the political scene. Partly that’s because he needs to establish his version of the show for the viewing audience. And partly that’s because going to the conventions—and specifically the RNC—was a Stewart-era innovation for “The Daily Show.” Kilborn steered clear of that particular elephantine circus, but his successor took “The Daily Show” to the RNC four times, starting with the 2000 convention in Philadelphia. Taking on the pageantry of the RNC — the mythos and signage of modern American conservatism, from stars-and-stripes bunting to the pervasive rhetoric of American exceptionalism — was a role Stewart’s “The Daily Show” excelled at. In 2000, its vibe low-budget alt-comedy: A fledgling Steve Carrell laughing in purposefully long, awkward jags when Stewart asks him whether or not George W. Bush is a man of purpose and character. Vance DeGeneres drove around in circles, pretending to be in Philadelphia, while actually outside the studio in New York. In 2004, it was performance art, as Stephen Colbert sunk even deeper into his conservative blowhard persona. (He got his own show just a year later, in 2005.) In 2008, a massive news team used improv comedy as a political statement — treating their interviewees as scene partners. (Oliver asked a female delegate expounding on small town values, “Could you be more generic?” Jones, interviewing a homophobe, sidled up to him and kissed him on the cheek.)
The 20-year-old “Daily Show” faces the challenge of divorcing Jon Stewart, beloved statesman, from his own legacy. No wonder it hasn’t been successful yet; it’s not an easy task to create an institution that can weather decades and anchor changes. Comedy Central is trying to transform this fundamentally Generation X vehicle into a sleeker and shinier millennial product; Noah is more than 20 years younger than Stewart, and the show is trying to entice viewers who were born the same decade “The Daily Show” premiered. The idea is that a different kind of “The Daily Show” entices a different kind of audience, even if Noah, as is now abundantly clear, is no Stewart.
But realistically speaking, audiences don’t want a different or retooled “The Daily Show”; they just want Jon Stewart back.
On Monday night, Stewart returned to late night, for a brief appearance on “The Late Show.” (This is not the first time he’s visited one of his children, so to speak: He cameoed in Colbert’s first episode on “The Late Show,” stopped by “Full Frontal,” and even did a segment on Noah’s “The Daily Show.”) Colbert came across Stewart living hermit-like in a forest cabin, and calls on his aid. Stewart asks who the nominee is, and upon being informed it’s Trump, Stewart performs an inevitable spit-take. The episode got “The Late Show” to #1 in its timeslot.
In some ways, it might be easier to accept that Stewart has left “The Daily Show” if he was doing something somewhere else; commenting on this presidential election that he predicted four years ago. It might be easier, too, if Stewart didn’t pop up every now and again with a kind of tentative gesture towards commentary. (On “Full Frontal,” he asked a pony if it would be voting for Trump because it was white.) Both Stewart and his fans seem to want him to say a little bit more, but right now, it’s just not happening.
Instead, Stewart won’t be around for the next two weeks of convention coverage, but his fingerprints will be all over it — in the guise of the format he steered to mainstream success and the comedians and satirists he worked with for so long. “The Daily Show” still exists. But the true legacy of 20 years of “The Daily Show” appears to be not what that show is today, but instead how many arrows you can point back to what it was. Maybe seeing Stewart recognize, on-camera, that the Trump candidacy he envisioned has come to life will help the audience move on, too — into the waiting arms of the numerous other late-night political satirists who are eager and willing to be your next Jon Stewart.