2With these words, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show reluctantly accepted the 2004 Television Critics Association Award for outstanding achievement in news and information.
But here’s the thing: the TV critics did know, and still do know, that The Daily Show isn’t a mainstream newscast. The TCA Award for news and information has also been given to PBS’s Frontline, ABC’s Nightline, CBS’s 60 Minutes and, last year, Fox and National Geographic’s COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey.
They just thought Stewart and company were doing a better job of informing the TV-watching public than most of what passed for serious news programming that year.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Stewart has accomplished during his 16 years and 2,600-plus telecasts as host of The Daily Show — he has taken a mostly overlooked fake newscast on a cable channel best known for cartoons, sketch comedy and puppet shows and turned it into one of the most relevant and revered (and by some on the U.S. political right, reviled) arenas for current-events commentary in all of television.
Under Stewart’s stewardship, The Daily Show has been much more than a comedy show. It has been the voice of reason in an unreasonable era of American politics, calling bull on the absurdity and intellectual dishonesty of a system that has polarized itself into a state of paralysis.
It’s worth noting that 2004, the year The Daily Show received the aforementioned TCA Award for news and information programming, was also the year in which Stewart famously visited the rant-fuelled CNN series Crossfire (wfp.to/xvC) and, instead of promoting his new book and telling a few jokes, publicly shamed hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala by laying bare the cynicism that underpinned the show’s manufactured conflict.
Stewart pleaded with the CNN pair to stop “hurting America” with their antics, and called their prefabricated right-vs.-left bickering dishonest “partisan hackery.” Within a few months, CNN cancelled Crossfire.
While Stewart has always maintained the position expressed in his TCA Award “acceptance” speech, there’s no doubt that his aspiration for The Daily Show has been to create great comedy that also serves a higher purpose.
When it first launched in 1996 with Craig Kilborn as host, Comedy Central’s fake newscast was more concerned with pop-culture topics than political issues. It remained mostly an afterthought in the U.S. cable network’s schedule until Stewart took over as host in 1999, when the The Daily Show shifted its focus to politics and the media.
Its U.S. audience tripled, and The Daily Show started winning awards (18 Emmys to date, and a pair of Peabody Awards), while at the same time forcing America’s political class and news-network sector to pay attention.
During the past decade, Stewart’s running feud with Fox News (and, in particular, host Bill O’Reilly) has become the stuff of TV legend.
Stewart has been the centre of The Daily Show, but he has also created an environment that allowed the fake-news show’s mock correspondents to become stars in their own right. Among the alumni who owe their career success to Daily Show roots are Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Samantha Bee, Rob Riggle, John Oliver and Aasif Mandvi.
Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show (his last show is Thursday) comes at an interesting time in late-night TV history. There has been a changing of the guard in the talk-show realm, with Jay Leno and David Letterman and Craig Ferguson all having departed, leaving The Tonight Show and its blueprint followers in the hands of a new generation led by the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel).
Stewart’s exit can’t be fairly compared to Letterman’s retirement earlier this year, simply because the format (fake-news show vs. traditional talk show) and arena (cable vs. major network) are so different, and The Daily Show’s place in the long run of TV history seems relatively minor alongside the genre that gave rise to Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.
But Stewart has been important to TV, and influential in American politics and culture, and he will be difficult to replace. The news has been fake, but the impact has been real.
What The Daily Show will become when new host Trevor Noah takes over this fall remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the 31-year-old South African has a very, very difficult act to follow.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2015 E1
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