TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 2 — ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’

12.30.09 8 years ago 35 Comments

Frank Ockenfels/Comedy Central

As further proof that serendipity is steering this chronicle, FOX decided to air a dreadful little comedy called “The Benchwarmers” on the eve of the posting of No. 2 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Released in 2006, “The Benchwarmers” is every bit as bad as you’d assume that a movie starring Rob Schneider, David Spade and Jon Heder would be and, at times, it’s actually a bit worse. 
Now in “The Benchwarmers,” the villain is the script. Wait. No. Let me start over again. In “The Benchwarmers,” the villain is an obnoxious overgrown frat boy named Jerry. And Jerry is played by Craig Kilborn. 
Kilborn is predictably smug and sarcastic, but he’s no worse than anything else in the film and no worse than he was playing similar character types in “Old School,” which many people quite enjoy, and “The Shaggy Dog,” which nobody enjoyed, at least not in its Tim Allen incarnation.
As I passed by “The Benchwarmers” and continued hastily across the dial (sadly, I’d actually seen the movie previously and thus didn’t need to relive it), this nightmare scenario arose in my brain:
It’s March 20, 2003. American (and a small assortment of international) forces have just begun their campaign of “shock and awe” against the Iraqi military. The country has effectively begun a war against a foreign nation that never attacked us on the basis of what would turn out to be faulty and sometimes fraudulent intelligence. The politics are neither here nor there, though. Let’s just leave it as this: We’re at war. Again. 
Having watched hours of coverage on CNN, heard the opinions from the talking heads and tried making sense of the night-vision footage from the Middle East, you turn to your favorite fake news show to get a spin on the events at hand. You turn to Comedy Central. You turn to “The Daily Show.”
And there… providing your regular dose of humor and relief in this stressful time… is Mr. Craig Kilborn.
I almost don’t need to write another word to explain why “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is No. 2 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[I will, though, write more words. Worry not. After the break…]
An assortment of social thinkers — including Joseph de Maistre and Alexis de Tocqueville — are credited with the observation that “The people get the government they deserve.” No great social thinker has ever been credited with the observation that the people also get “The Daily Show” they deserve, or at least the “Daily Show” they require.
I may have begun this essay by mocking Craig Kilborn, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that “The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn” was not a good show.   It was glib and snarky and mostly politically unengaged, but it was also funny and I still miss the “Five Questions” segment that Kilborn took with him upon his departure. 
“The Daily Show” with Craig Kilborn was the perfect “Daily Show” for the two years that it ran, beginning in 1996. Kilborn’s low-impact brand of humor was aces for the middle years of the Bill Clinton administration, when the economy was strong and Clinton was a beloved president first and an occasional easy punchline second. 
I would say “It’s no coincidence that Craig Kilborn’s run as ‘Daily Show’ host ended on Dec. 17, 1998, just two days before Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives,” but that would be a lie. 
It was a complete and total coincidence that Kilborn left to go replace Tom Snyder on “The Late Late Show” at what could be seen as an easy transition point for topical humor. But it was a nice coincidence.
The first episode of the rechristened “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” aired on Jan. 11, 1999. The changeover in substance came quickly. Suddenly, the opening monologue became a discussion of the day’s news and information, rather than a “Weekend Update”-style zip through headlines serious and frivolous alike. In the Kilborn years, the remote segments were usually “Mock the yokels” investigations of the silly and mundane, but under Stewart the “Mock the yokels” pieces seemed to have more of an edge, trying to find a different angle beyond “People in small towns are superstitious and stupid.” The changeover wasn’t instantaneous, but it was fast enough.
Both because it impacts the timing of this article and because it’s true, it’s best to say that “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” hit its stride during the 2000 election, both in primary and convention coverage, but even moreso in the handling over the election and its increasingly ridiculous aftermath. The series had already dubbed that coverage “Indecision 2000” before the national indecision (or Florida’s indecision) became the focus of everybody’s coverage. It was just the first of many times in the decade that the show that was meant to be mocking and echoing the legitimate news gathering organizations found itself ahead-of-the-curve on the tone of the news, if not the news itself.
How would Craig Kilborn’s “Daily Show” have covered the 2000 election debacle? Fortunately we never needed to know, but it’s just my casual hunch that whatever they did wouldn’t have earned a Peabody Award.
It turned out that what the Aughts required was a serious Fake Newsman, the Edward R. Murrow of Fake Newsmen, the Walter Cronkite of Fake Anchors. We needed a “Daily Show” host who was utterly sincere in his fraudulence and completely trustworthy in his prevarications. In Stewart, the show got those attributes and more. Because that’s what the decade required, Comedy Central also got a younger, more Jewish Howard Beale. And at times in the Aughts, we really just needed somebody to get mad as hell, which Jon Stewart was more than willing to do.
Most decades probably have roughly the same number of news-gathering days (varied slightly be the number of Leap Years, I guess), but the Aughts felt like possibly the Newsiest Decade Ever ™. Part of that stems from a proliferation of news regurgitating apparatuses unequalled in human history. But it’s also just possible that a lot of stuff happened.
We began with the 2000 election and its subsequent chaos. We had a war being staged on two fronts. There was a 2004 election that was heated and contentious, even if the results were properly determined on election night. We had an economic downturn, epic corporate malfeasance and the fall-out from the protracted nature of those two wars. We had a 2008 election that featured both historic primaries, but then an unprecedented election and then we’ve had a year of fall-out and increased frustration and rancor in the aftermath of that election. And “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” treated each of those events with increased legitimacy and with a grouping news-gathering operation.
I didn’t mention it in the timeline, but 9/11/01 was the defining event of the decade. It wasn’t an event that lent itself to humor, but it turned out to be an event that lent itself to Stewart and his strengths. “The Daily Show” returned on September 20, 2001 and Stewart’s opening monologue was, for me at least, the great entertainment reaction to a tragedy that left the entire nation unsure how to respond. He wasn’t the first to do it, but he might have been the best. It’s only 9-minutes and I could write a whole addition essay just on that, it’s so honest and forthright. Like the 2000 election, it was another instance where people realized that “The Daily Show” didn’t need to only be a comedy series.
There was a year that the Television Critics Association gave “The Daily Show” our prize for News & Information, an award usually given to things like “Frontline” and “60 Minutes.” Stewart couldn’t make the awards presentation, but he sent in a taped message chiding us and reminding us that “The Daily Show” is a fake news show. During the 2004 and 2008 elections, could you really tell the difference? “The Daily Show” had people on the ground in every state conducting polls and interviews, while each of the candidates had to sit opposite Stewart at some point, some multiple times. The show itself may have been fake, but the news being generated on “The Daily Show” was every bit as real and substantive as what CNN and Fox News were doing, though you could take that as an indictment on  the more legitimate news agencies, but why would you need to? Just because Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell weren’t technically real journalists and just because they were technically playing roles, the interviews they got and the field reports they filed offered more insight than what jaded correspondents with 20 years experience were sending back.
The media started to report on statistics suggesting that for more and more young viewers, “The Daily Show” was becoming a primary news source, rather than a secondary interpretive news source. This outraged newspapers and network anchors clinging to their legitimacy, but it also outraged Stewart and the “Daily Show” team, who were just as determinedly clinging to their illegitimacy. You can’t mock The Man if you’ve become The Man yourself. 
Perhaps that’s why, in the aftermath of Obama’s election, “The Daily Show” has slipped more and more into a mode of critiquing other news organizations, rather than necessarily focusing on the news so completely. It’s a greater differentiator if “The Daily Show” is mostly a watchdog for Fox News and CNBC and MSNBC (and occasionally CNN) than if the show is out trying to crack the same news. And as media watchdog, “The Daily Show” has begun to enact its own tangible change, even earning an entirely empty apology from Fox News after catching the network in an editing fabrication earlier this fall. Stewart’s crusades against shoddy journalism have become increasingly angry and have spawned some of the show’s most devastating research work, compiling elaborate montages of deception. In presenting these lethal clip packages, Stewart can almost be the straight man many nights, just raising an eyebrow and letting reality speak for itself. That’s been one of Stewart’s greatest strengths, letting the news damn the news.
Much has been made over the years of Stewart and the show’s liberal bias, as if that were somehow relevant. If Fox News can claim that 75 percent of its programming isn’t actually news and therefore isn’t required to adhere to any standards of objectivity, it’s hard to know who would expect objectivity from comedy. Also, complaining that “The Daily Show” has a liberal bias is so clearly missing the point of Stewart’s persona and what he’s achieved on the show.
Stewart’s bias has certainly been ideological, but it has never been political. For eight years while the Republicans dominated the White House and, for the most part, both Houses of Congress, Stewart’s targets were frequently on the right, because speaking truth to power is more entertaining than mocking the class runts, which is what the Democrats were through much of the decade. But he’s almost always focused on political hypocrisies from the Right, rather than policies. There’s a reason why folks like Bob Dole and John McCain and even Mike Huckabee have never feared appearances on “The Daily Show”: If you actually mean what you say and follow through on it with humanity, humility and ethics, “The Daily Show” wouldn’t really pick on you. Stewart is a pragmatist and an idealist in that respect. He wants people in power to live up to the best versions of themselves. So that meant that in the 2004 election, when the Democrats decided to take it upon themselves to destroy what ought to have been a winnable election, Stewart was far harsher on them than on the Republicans.  He’s been harsher on the Democrats in the recent health care cop-out and he was hardly a cheerleader amidst the left wing toothlessness at the end of the Bush Administration. So yes, Jon Stewart is probably a crazy lefty, but he’s also issued more thoughtful and substantive critiques of the Democrats than Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck and Dennis Miller put together. That nobody at Fox News has been watching “The Daily Show” and plagiarizing Stewart for a decade is their loss.
Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” have become an indispensable part of the decade’s discourse, but I get that I’m not really praising “The Daily Show” in total here. This position on my list is, largely, a celebration of the first segment or two of each night’s “The Daily Show,” maybe not the whole half-hour show.
I mentioned that conservatives like Dole, McCain and Huckabee have been regular guests because they know Stewart applauds straight-shooting, but they’ve also felt safe because they know Stewart still isn’t a great interviewer. He’s a lot better than he was. It used to be excruciating watching Stewart whenever he scored a rare A-list guest, as he went from a funnier Edward R. Murrow in the opening segment to a less funny, but equally obsequious Larry King in the interview. To this day, Stewart remains an excessively gentle and coddling interrogator to the bigger names, but he’s become better at positioning his softball questions in a way that lets the subjects feel comfortable and, as a result, he’s begun to get different sides of their personalities to come out. Every once in a while, though, Stewart gets a guest he wants to grill and in those instances, he forgets that he’s supposed to occasionally let the other person speak. Many in the media loved Stewart’s take-down of CNBC’s clown prince Jim Cramer, but that “interview” amounted to little more than a 22-minute browbeating and while Stewart said things that many of us wished we had said, Cramer contributed little to his own demise. So is it OK that I love “The Daily Show” but tend to turn off many of the interviews mid-way through? I obviously think it is.
But include the field segments and filmed pits in the “Plus” column for “The Daily Show.” Over the decade, the show has become at least as much of a comedy pipeline for television as the movies as “Saturday Night Live.” In addition to Carell and Colbert, the show’s two most powerful veterans, The show has filtered comics like Ed Helms, Lewis Black, John Oliver, Demetri Martin and Rob Corddry into the mainstream. 
Actually, with “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show” unleashed a spin-off which, at times, outstripped the original. Colbert’s persona initially seemed ill-tailored for a long-term run, but that show’s writers have done an amazing job of keeping the character relevant from the end of the Bush years and into the Obama years. I’ve cast multiple TCA Awards votes for Colbert over the years and “The Colbert Report” came very close to making this list on its own, but I eventually decided that I would give special mention to it here. 
In closing, I just want to return to what I already said about “Pardon the Interruption.” When something in sports happened in the decade, I wanted to know what Tony and Michael were going to say about it. When something happened in America (and in the world) in the decade, I wanted to know what “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” was going to say.
That, to me, is ample reason to have “The Daily Show” at No. 2 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? The long, strange journey comes to an end with the best series ever produced for the small screen. If you like hyperbole, get ready for the deluge, as HitFix celebrates TV’s Best Show of the Aughts.

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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