Nothing in the 16-year tenure of Jon Stewart as the host and producer of “The Daily Show” offered an opportunity to assess his place in the history of the TV news-cum-talk show-cum-satire as his unexpected announcement that he is leaving it. But to do it properly – not that propriety matters much to him – one has to backtrack a little in time.
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Since the broadcast of images to peoples’ homes began, there was one anathema for TV producers: doing what was known as “visual radio,” or, as it came to be derisively dubbed, “talking heads.” After a relatively short fascination with the mere possibility of seeing the mouths that utter the words, TV people started to further the concept that something visual – besides the talking heads – has to happen on the small screen constantly. Otherwise the viewers would switch off or zap to another channel.
In a relatively short time, talking heads – people who have something to say to each other or to the viewers – were out, and “shows” were in, “talk shows” included. That meant that people who got to be on screen had to do more than just talk: they had to entertain as well – dance, sing, and make a spectacle of themselves.
The last bastion of “seriousness” remained the news broadcast. Not only did they need a talking head or heads (with demands of gender, age and skin hue changing with the times) to anchor the visual reports coming in live, with a “breaking news” label underneath, the anchors were also supposed to put the broken bits and pieces of information into perspective and create some sort of order for the viewer. They were supposed to be impartial, objective, setting the day’s agenda without one of their own. They were not supposed to take sides; they aspired to, and were expected to, present all sides of the issue and allow the viewers to make up their own minds.
Such was the news of yesteryear. But with the passage of time, two things happened: The TV producers and hosts started to believe in their own PR, as the voice of truth and reason, and they – pardon the unfair generalization – started to patronize their patrons. Fearing the viewers’ ever-shortening attention span, and seeing them as masses of asses that are needed to provide ratings figures, the news broadcasts started to dumb themselves down. Some hosts and TV channels began to view themselves as infallible arbiters of world order, and went on grinding axes and claiming that the world is out of whack and only they know how to set it right. Or left. Anyway, what is left of the world when they are not paying attention to it.
That is how the news morphed into “infotainment,” with information being constantly tainted by the need to entertain the unassuming viewer and lull him into a sort of mildly interested stupor.
A mad world
Someone from the entertainment sector was needed to bounce onto the scene and point out the news emperors’ nonexistent new clothes. Stewart, with a career as a stand-up comedian whose daily bread was exposing the absurdities of the human condition – significantly, he was the host of the “Short Attention Span Theater” for Comedy Central – took over “The Daily Show.” In a very short time, he dared to be what news anchors and commentators on serious daily news shows pretended to be, but were not, by pointing out the inaccuracies, inconsistencies and incongruities in the way the news was presented and expounded on other channels. In a TV reality where anchors, commentators and politicians were claiming to have no agenda but that of the common good – but actually selling their own worldview as the gospel truth – Stewart, with his somewhat manic energy and lack of fear of being perceived as unbalanced or over the top, became the voice of reason and sanity. It was as if by agreeing that it is indeed a “a mad world, my masters,” he was maddeningly madder, forcing it to complete a full turn around on its own folly and come back to its senses.
He was poking fun at the world and its news broadcasts. But lo and behold, the world as reflected in news broadcasts insisted on being ever funnier and more absurd. The wildest flights of Stewart’s comic fancy soon enough became actual facts, thus endowing him, the news jester of all people, with a kind of credibility. For many viewers, his skewed view of the world became the source of news and world views. By refusing to treat the world and its news seriously, he has managed to educate millions of viewers not to take at face value anything told them by the TV screen, but always to ask – as Cicero advised in ancient Rome – “cui bono?” Who makes the buck, in whatever currency, from the way matters are presented?
Stewart revels in adversity; he has been quick to pick a verbal fight and always insisted on having the last word. He was never afraid to admit he might have been wrong, mainly because he had never insisted that he was right. And he instilled that sense of doubt and fun in the people who worked for and with him. He may be giving up the daily TV show routine, but he is leaving two screens in the hands of two very capable “doubters” – Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. An interesting side thought there: Unlike anchors and commentators who have only one dimension – they are what they are, TV personalities – Stewart, Colbert and Oliver are multi-talented writers, actors and comedians. They’ve got a life, besides their TV lifespan.
It is much too early to sum up Stewart’s career, on and off TV. Let’s just say that for 16 years he has spiced up the daily news with a twist of lemon, a pinch of salt and a tongue in cheek.