Changing the Face of TV satire

On August 6, after 16 years as host, Jon Stewart presented his final episode of The Daily Show, bringing an end to one of television’s most rousing eras. Emirates Man examines the man, the show, and what the future of American TV satire might look like without ‘Lefty’.

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 October 15, 2004: Jon Stewart, celebrated host of The Daily Show, appears on CNN’s Crossfire, a debate show, before the year’s presidential elections. Crossfire is a conservative versus liberal shouting match, and Stewart has continually lambasted it on his own Comedy Central spot. Before its hosts can launch an attack, he cuts them off. “Here’s just what I wanted to tell you guys.

“Stop.”

Laughter. Then, three months later, Crossfire is cancelled. CNN’s president admitted that it was Stewart’s appearance that sounded the show’s death-knell. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” he said. By then Stewart was already a stalwart of America’s political conversation – albeit from a skewed, comic angle. But his culling of Crossfire was proof of his ability to end that conversation too, with a combination of wisenheimer wit and moral acumen that has come to be his calling card.

Now, with that card and many more being hung up alongside his trademark navy suits, many have questioned whether the end of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is the end of daily political satire altogether – or, at least, in a form that has come to represent the past 16 years of US culture as much as any movie franchise, drama series or musical prodigy.

Trevor Noah, Stewart’s replacement, will certainly hope not. His appointment, as a South African with only recent experience of the American political hoopla machine, is evidence that Comedy Central, the show’s creators, want to push it in a completely different direction. That’s a wise decision. Jon Stewart didn’t always seem like the saviour of comedy, but he has worked hard and well to become one of his country’s biggest satirical assets.

Viacom , which owns Comedy Central, saw its shares drop to the tune of $350 million upon Stewart’s resignation annoucement

Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz was born on November 28, 1962, in New York City to Marian Leibowitz, a teacher, and Donald Leibowitz, a professor of physics. His family has Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian and even Mongolian heritage. But it was his Jewish identity that bullies at school pursued, which at least partially inspired a young interest in far-left politics.

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The teenage Stewart graduated from William And Mary College Virginia in 1984, where he first studied chemistry before switching to psychology. A string of post-degree positions followed, from public administration to puppeteering, and several bar jobs between – including one at the legendary New Jersey live venue City Gardens.

Another esteemed role saw Stewart sorting live mosquitoes for the New Jersey Department Of Health. But it was comedy that the young man loved, and he ventured into the city’s late night scene to try to make a name for himself. Within years he was a mainstay on the circuit, becoming a regular at Manhattan’s Comedy Cellar, the Greenwich Village venue that has hosted the city’s brightest comics since it opened in 1982.

Writing jobs began coming in, and a 1993 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman led to the inception of The Jon Stewart Show, a talk show which aired on MTV and welcomed stars such as Courtney Cox and William Shatner. Then Stewart hosted the CBS show Where’s Elvis This Week?, which saw American and British comedians chatting about the headlines of the day, and featured stand-up stars like Eddie Izzard, Nora Ephron and Armando Ianucci.

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In 1999 Craig Kilborn left Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for The Late Late Show, leaving room for Stewart to assume the role which would make him a household name. Over the 16 years since he has welcomed just about every major celebrity in entertainment, culture and politics, becoming a kingmaker for fellow comedians who appeared on his show, including Egypt’s Bassem Youssef would go on to be named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, while Steven Colbert and John Oliver both cut their teeth on the show. Colbert’s own show, The Colbert Report, ended in December, with the funnyman going on to replace Letterman on The Late Show. Actor Steve Carell also worked as a Daily Show correspondent.

But it has been the way Stewart attacked the media and political establishment that won him so many admirers over the years. Fox News came in for regular hidings, as Stewart lampooned its polarising yellow journalism and caricature-like presenters. In 2011 he launched a scathing satire of loudhailer Glenn Beck, whose populist rants bore more than a passing resemblance to Howard Beale, the mad news anchor played by Peter Finch in the brilliant 1976 movie Network.

“These networks are geared towards catastrophe, towards a 9/11 – that’s when 24 hours of news serves a purpose,” Stewart later said. “But without that they turn the banal into the urgent, so they have to ratchet everything up.”

Stewart held a longstanding rivalry with Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, with whom he regularly clashed on social and political issues. O’Reilly, whose show presents the news from a right-wing perspective, attacked Stewart and his viewers most scathingly during the 2004 presidential election, when he said: “You know what’s really frightening? You actually have an influence on this presidential election. That is scary, but it’s true. You’ve got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night and they can vote.” Nielsen Media Research quickly reported that The Daily Show’s audience was far more likely to have completed four years of college than O’Reilly’s fans.

The most impressive by-product of of The Daily Show is that it actually appears to have woken the 18 to 29 demographic from its political slumber

“He’s either the funniest smart guy on TV, or the smartest funnyman,” said Crossfire’s Belaga, in response to one of Stewart’s detractors’ biggest criticisms: that he puts forward meaty political points while simultaneously hiding behind his satirist’s pen. Nevertheless, The Daily Show raked in millions of followers from Stewart’s reign. Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, saw its shares drop to the tune of $350 million upon Stewart’s resignation announcement. The show pulls in around 1.5 million viewers on TV and online in the US per episode. Newsweek called the show “the coolest pit-stop on television”.

Plaudits aside, there’s a more concrete by-product of Stewart’s tenure, in that he’s revitalised the nation’s youth and affected their political apathy – no mean feat. Indeed, in terms of voter turnout, figures state that the 18 to 29 demographic has steadily risen since 2000, reaching its highest point since 1972. Something that Stewart must take some credit for, despite a constant claim that his show “isn’t journalism”.

In 2010 Stewart and Colbert co-hosted a satirical political rally at Washington, DC’s National Mall, which drew an estimated 215,000 people. The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear featured Stewart as the liberal counterpoint to Colbert’s fear-mongering, conservative pundit alter ego. The hope was to show how America’s reason-minded are drowned out in the media by a minority of extreme views.

At the end of the rally Stewart gave a rousing speech in which he admitted that the world does have things to fear, but that “we live in hard times, not end-times. And we can have animus and not be enemies…. if we amplify everything, we hear nothing… Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people who are just a little bit late for something they have to do”.

His biggest hiatus from hosting duties was a 12-week break in 2013 while he was filming Rosewater, a movie he wrote and directed, about an Iranian-Canadian journalist detained in Iran during its 2009 presidential election protests. The film, released last year starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, garnered positive reviews. “Jon Stewart… is maybe due a career stumble,” wrote Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. “I can only say it hasn’t arrived yet.”

“Stewart set out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick. But that import will now be focused elsewhere. September 28 saw Trevor Noah sit in The Daily Show chair for the very first time. His appointment as Stewart’s successor divided many in the US and beyond: Noah was a relatively little-known comic stateside, despite enjoying considerable success in his native South Africa.

Born in Johannesburg on February 20, 1984, Noah’s family life suffered tragedy almost immediately. His mother, of local Xhosa heritage, was fined and jailed for her apartheid-era relationship with his white Swiss father. Noah’s father would soon move back to Europe. His mother’s second husband, who she divorced, attacked her with a gun in 2009 after she got engaged to another man, winding up convicted of attempted murder.

With Host-in-waiting Trevor Noah

Nevertheless Noah forged a screen career that began with soap opera Isidingo, and soon hosted his own talk show, Tonight With Trevor Noah. In 2012 he made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and in May 2013 he wowed the audience on Letterman’s show, referencing his upbringing and stereotypes of Africa he faces.

“Africa is not a colour, it’s a place,” he said. “I hate it when people treat me like that. I do some shows where people greet me like, ‘This next comedian’s coming from Africa!’ They make it sound like a guy in leopard skin’s going to come running on the stage and say, ‘Let me tell you monkey jokes!’ And it’s not like that. I mean I do have good monkey jokes but that’s not the point.”

From 2014 he became a regular contributor to The Daily Show, speaking about American issues from a foreign perspective.

“He seems very funny to me,” said Daily Show alumnus Larry Wilmore. “As a foreigner, what’s his take gong to be on us and are we willing to hear that from a foreigner? John Oliver was able to take us along for his ride but he built his relationship up on The Daily Show. Trevor is coming from left field. He’s talented and charismatic.”

As a foreigner, what’s his [Trevor Noah’s] take going to be on America?

It’s that outsider’s view which many feel will bring a fresh aspect to a Stewart-less show – and, just as importantly, allow the young star to stamp his own mark on a brand that had become synonymous with one man.

Undoubtedly big shoes to fill on a show that carries with it a weight and responsibility – only some of that to entertain. Whether Trevor Noah is up to the task depends on not only his talent – which is clearly considerable – but also a nation’s response to the newcomer and a new line of political comedy. However if there’s one thing that The Daily Show has taught us in the last 16 years it’s that towing the party line is quite simply never an option.

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