For viewers of a certain age, it was as if it was 2010 again. Here was Jon Stewart — looking a little haggard after almost one year away from The Daily Show but nonetheless projecting gravitas — shouting Good Liberal Truth and pointing emphatically at invisible right-wing enemies for 10 blissful minutes. It occurred last Thursday on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when Stewart offered a helping hand to his beleaguered friend in a failing ratings war against The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And Stewart no doubt delivered for Colbert — Stewart’s “You Don’t Own America” address, which came on the heels of the just-concluded Republican National Convention, generated both the media buzz and the viral clicks (12 million and counting) that Colbert’s show has otherwise sorely lacked. For liberals yearning for missing icons of ’00s irreverence, having Stewart back in time for the RNC convention was even more exciting than LCD Soundsystem reuniting in time for summer festival season.
Actually, maybe that comparison doesn’t go far enough. “It was like staring at the Ark of the Covenant, or the first time you heard the Beatles,” insisted Wired. According to Esquire, Stewart did nothing less than drive “liberal-minded folks to their knees to laugh uncontrollably, cry tears of joy, pray to the comedy gods for our good fortune, or some combination of the three.” And here Democrats thought Donald Trump had the market cornered on messianic posturing.
Since departing The Daily Show last August, Stewart has made a habit of semi-regular pop-ins on other people’s shows, including several spots on Colbert’s program as well as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and, weirdly, WWE Summer Slam. But the “You Don’t Own America” spot generated the most rapturous response, and with good reason: It was Stewart doing what he does best, mounting an air-tight case against Republicans with a combination of video clips, pop culture references, and snarky graphics. Like an old pro, Stewart ratcheted up the tension for several minutes, gradually building to a crescendo of righteous, expletive-spiked fury. He was a little rusty, perhaps, but Stewart inarguably killed.
This video-essay format — let’s call it an honorlogue, as it’s a more serious and high-minded cousin to the traditional monologue — was perfected by Stewart on The Daily Show in the ’00s and has since become the favored vehicle for Stewart spawn like Bee and HBO’s John Oliver. Seth Meyers has also adopted it for his “A Closer Look” segments on Late Night. I assume Trevor Noah still uses it on The Daily Show (I haven’t watched it lately). Either way, while monologues remain a staple of late-night, the honorlogue has come to overshadow it in terms of prestige and online traction.
Colbert himself performed a fine example of an honorlogue in June in response to the terrorist attack in Orlando. While it’s hard to recall any joke from a recent Colbert monologue, this honorlogue elicited 7.5 million web hits.
Notice the tropes of the honorlogue — a stream of video clips to establish veracity, references to Gen-X/Millenial-friendly pop-culture (in this case Aladdin) to supply levity, a funny graphic that provides edutainment (see the chalk board), and finally some bleeped-out profanity for catharsis.
It’s easy to see why this format works so well for political comedy: It builds momentum for a persuasive argument and belly laughs simultaneously. Rather than the disconnected (and often lame) one-liners of the conventional monologue, the honorlogue connects a series of thoughts and witty insights in the service of a volcanic pay-off several minutes later.
(I just noticed that this story also has an honorlogue structure, given the mix of video clips and jokey sides in service of a central point. Which means that I must end this story with an F-bomb — if I successfully earn that F-bomb, the reader will in turn applaud raucously. Stay tuned.)
While the honorlogue does have certain structural necessities, there’s also enough room for variation so that anyone who adopts it can make it his or her own. (As far as the post-Stewart honorlogists go, Bee is the indignant one, Oliver is the absurdist, and Meyers is relatively measured and sardonic.) But no matter who’s giving an honorlogue, the format is a proven smart alternative to celebrity karaoke in terms of viral content derived from talk shows. Whether it’s Bee on gun control, Oliver on Trump, or Meyers on Mike Pence, an honorlogue is almost always more memorable than that night’s monologue, assuming there still is one. (Bee and Oliver stick strictly with honorlogues.)
Given how common this format has become, it’s sort of amazing that people miss Jon Stewart at all. There’s no longer just one Daily Show, but rather a bunch of mini-Daily Shows. Whatever Johnny Carson signified to the Letterman/Leno generation, Stewart now represents to the best and brightest of 21st century talk show hosts. In many ways, it’s like Jon Stewart never left.
And yet, there’s this feeling among some disaffected liberals that this country needs Stewart at this vulnerable time. “Was he leaving us now? Really?” The Atlantic‘s James Parker wrote in March about Stewart’s Daily Show retirement. “Deserting us just as the gargantuan shadow of the Trump campaign, that neo-fascist bouncy castle, began to rise wobblingly over the country?” The idea is that just the right Stewart comedy bit will finally clarify the issues and force the republic to reconsider its choices at this precarious time… I guess?
Is this really about liberals mourning the loss of our nightly avatar for b*tching about conservatives? Or are we really mourning the thoroughly disproven belief that a clever comedy bit can have real political significance? Back in 2010, Stewart and Colbert convinced hundreds of thousands of viewers to converge on Washington D.C. for the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. But six years later, sanity still hasn’t been turned back on. The gulf between activists — the people who risk true harm in the streets to affect change — and entertainers has been reaffirmed.
Looking back, the faith that a lot of us had in the power of satire — that merely pointing and laughing at bad politicians was good enough — seems dangerously naive. As Vox‘s Emmett Rensin recently observed, “George W. Bush is not a dumbass hick. In eight years, all the sick Daily Show burns in the world did not appreciably undermine his agenda.” Similarly, while John Oliver is a gifted comedian, he has clearly failed at “annihilating” or “destroying” Donald Trump, no matter the claims of internet aggregators. Drumpf‘s path to the White House remains frighteningly clear.
It seems impossible for any talk show host now to stage something as ambitious as the Rally to Restore Sanity — the immense capital that Stewart once wielded has been dispersed to a number of heirs. But if the good guys have multiplied amid a diffuse media landscape, so have the one bad ones. Which brings me back to Stewart’s “You Don’t Own America” honorlogue. Here’s my quibble with Stewart’s otherwise stirring speech: We live in an era of weaponized social media. The horror and hilarity of this election is playing out on Facebook and Twitter, not cable. I love you, Jon Stewart, but picking on Fox News is so ’00s. The average age of a Fox News viewer in 2016 is 68. You don’t want kids to think you’re old as f*ck, Jon.
Thank you, we’ll be right back!