Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ended a year ago today. It's time we all moved on.

      Jon Stewart back behind a desk on The Late Show with Stephen
 on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
      Photo Credit: CBS
It was a year ago tonight, on August 6, 2015, that Comedy Central aired the final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I watched the broadcast from a Winnipeg hotel room feeling a profound sense of sadness and loss. It's now exactly one year later, and to be brutally honest, I kind of hope Jon Stewart never appears on television ever again.

First of all, allow me to clarify my history with Jon Stewart: for many, many years, I was a regular viewer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Watching it and the first ten minutes of The Colbert Report was a nightly ritual in our house before going to bed. I loved Jon Stewart's Daily Show like few other things before. And I've said many a kind word about Jon Stewart's Daily Show and how much it was capable of impressing me even at the points where I most felt like I had heard everything Jon Stewart's Daily Show was capable of telling me. In a list of the best television episodes of 2012, I praised Jon Stewart's September 19, 2012 episode which, of all things, actually found a reenergized comedic take on covering the hypocrisy of Fox News in its 13th year on the air. Seeing a live taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will always be a treasured memory for me, if anything because I can say I was once in the same room as Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and that is awesome. Quite frankly, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was a special and meaningful part of my life.

But the key word in that last sentence is "was". I admit that in Stewart's last few years on the program, my interest in watching The Daily Show every night waned, and picking the show back up full time didn't really happen for me until Stewart's final weeks on the air. I'm not sure I agree with the criticisms that Stewart seemed at a loss for energy - even if he said himself he was at a loss for energy, I never felt it blatantly translated to the screen - but I definitely agreed with the criticism that watching The Daily Show started to feel merely like I was being told what I already believed to be true and then congratulated for believing it.

Stewart's first return to The Daily Show this past December was a triumph, bringing much needed attention to a serious topic in an effortlessly hilarious way. I was thrilled by his return until I came to the sad realization that this guest appearance was the most attention The Daily Show with Trevor Noah had gotten since its premiere a little more than two months earlier. It only added to the profoundly unfair and widely held belief that Trevor Noah's version of The Daily Show was unfunny simply because rookie Noah, with a completely different comedic sensibility than Stewart, wasn't able to replace an all-time great comedian who took years to hone not only his own voice and that of the program he hosted, but also to find a loyal and passionate audience. I mean hey, why afford anyone patience anymore? Jon Stewart's Daily Show was obviously the exact same show in August 2015 as it was in September of 1999, right? Sucks to be Noah then, because he should have known that replacing TV legends never works. After all, whatever happened to that no-name with no-experience that NBC hired to replace David Letterman back in the early 90s?

Jon Stewart graced us with his presence again last week in a guest appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which, fitting with this piece's frustrating theme of "can we just never learn to like anything new ever again without bailing out and going back to the things we knew we liked when things get tough and scary?", marked the return of Colbert's political pundit character from his Comedy Central show of yesteryear. I agree 100% that The Late Show has still never figured out its rhythms, but again, shows like these require time and patience, and to even reunite the Stewart-Colbert pairing sets a dangerous precedent for that show. Now anyone who tunes it will be disappointed by anything that isn't the old Daily Show-Colbert Report handoff even moreso than they were in the first year of Colbert's new show.

But that didn't seem to matter to journalists and critics in the last couple weeks, who took every opportunity they had to sing the praises of Jon Stewart (and God, this is the most I've ever in my life sounded like Sean Hannity and trust me, I hate myself for that, but bear with me) as their political satire saviour. I rolled my eyes at every new article published about Stewart's return, as though current events haven't been mocked on television since he left the airwaves. I winced at every "Jon Stewart slay queen YASSSSSS" tweet and retweet that came across my timeline.

But the final straw for me was this piece in The Guardian entitled "Dear Jon Stewart - this year's been hard without you". Allow me to express my biggest issue with this article, and with the praise of Stewart this week, in the form of this long-winded metaphor: say your best friend, who you had known for many years, was moving away, and now you feel like you have to try to make one of your other friends, who you also liked a lot, your new best friend. You honestly didn't think it would be the same, but you wanted to try anyway. And then it turned out your best friend leaving town meant that you suddenly got a lot more face time with this other guy you knew pretty well, and you realized you actually liked hanging out with him even better even if you didn't do it as often. And then like a year later, this new girl showed up in homeroom and just blew the fucking roof off the place with how funny and smart she was and all you wanted to do was make her your best friend too and then the three of you could just hang out all the time together. And by the time that happened, your friend that moved away had come back to visit, and that actually became the thing that wasn't the same anymore. Maybe other kids at school thought it was a big deal that he was back, and you were happy for them that they got to see their old friend, but you had moved on and were maybe a little annoyed that the return of your old friend who was still telling the same jokes as he was last year was overshadowing your cool new friends whose awesomeness you wished the other kids in school could see the same as you did.

I'm not exactly sure if that Guardian piece is trying to be funny in its wistful reminiscence of a time when Jon Stewart was on TV four nights a week, but its author, David Ferguson, has things completely backwards. That piece is 99% longing for the good ol' days of Stewart's nightly critique of the Bush administration, something that is gone and isn't coming back, and one throwaway comment about how Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is the only show that currently reminds him of Stewart's old show. Jeez, talk about burying the lede! This Full Frontal show is great, you say? Then tell me about that!!! I am all for looking back on TV shows that are no longer on the air, certainly if they're shows that haven't gotten the level of praise or attention I think they're deserving of. But when we are giving up an opportunity to praise something as good and not-terribly-well-discussed as Full Frontal to write another "in praise of Jon Stewart" piece, which are starting to feel a little like a teenager writing "Mrs. Jon Stewart" with a heart around it on the front of their binder, we are losing sight of actual interesting and fresh conversation we can be having.

The same impulses that drive our desire to see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart back on Comedy Central four nights a week are the same impulses that drive us to see every TV show we once used to love get a nostalgic revival, which leads us to reap what we sow with 13 episodes of Fuller House on Netflix. And the people who don't like hearing that are probably the same people last week who were super stoked on seeing their old, familiar, safe TV friend again but who recoiled in horror at the idea that there was enough nostalgic desire for more Joey Gladstone in the year 2016.

We like Jon Stewart too much to fully understand that living in this world full time completely burnt him out. The reason he "abandoned" us right before the U.S. election cycle really kicked into second gear is because he knew he was too mentally drained to produce the quality show we expected from him. The utter giddiness he felt right as Donald Trump was announcing his presidential campaign was mostly due to the fact that he realized he could revel in its ridiculous ever so briefly and then disappear in a puff of smoke before he knew he would be resigned to calling out Trump's hypocrisy night after night, month after month until an election day that was still over a year away.

And if Stewart really was that concerned about his own well-being and the thought of letting down his audience with subpar material, kudos to him for recognizing that fact, taking care of himself, and leaving on a high note. And maybe all of the "ra ra finally we have political satire back again" last week doesn't faze Stewart in the slightest, but I have to wonder if it does when I see a headline like "Jon Stewart hopes to have his new HBO project ready by September," which, as I pointed out on Twitter, would be an interesting headline if it didn't feel like Stewart has no enthusiasm for this project. A project which, by the way, will be just as much a revival of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as NBC's tribute to veteran sitcom director James Burrowes was a Friends reunion. But just like with the latter, entertainment journalism will have you believe the former to be true for the sake of clicks!

The reality, however, is that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart lives in the past and will continue to stay there. We can visit it whenever we want by watching old clips, but there will be no revival no matter how many billions of dollars Netflix wants to offer Stewart to try to re-sell us our memories. Jon would be the first to tell us that the idea that he is "necessary" in these times of political absurdity is almost as ridiculous as the toxic bile spewed at the Republican National Convention.

The irony in all of this is that I'm criticizing the media, and specifically David Ferguson, for contributing nothing new to the conversation by just rehashing Jon Stewart memories while only skating by his worthy successors in the late night landscape. It would be at this point that I'd wax rhapsodic about why Samantha Bee has been my saviour, my Jon Stewart, in a political season that has felt more distressing and made me more cynical than any campaign ever has before. But a) I have to save something to say about her show in my top 10 list in December, and b) you'd be much better served reading this piece by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox, who nails exactly what Bee has been doing to expand upon the groundwork laid for her by Stewart as well as her former fellow Daily Show correspondent John Oliver.

Seeing Jon Stewart again was nice I suppose, but it felt wholly unnecessary now that I spend every week waiting for Monday night and a new episode of Full Frontal. I've found someone new who scratches that particular itch in my life, and her name is Samantha Bee. I heartily endorse giving her a try and seeing if she relieves your own personal itchiness before you drone on once again about how great life was back when the pharmacy still carried the particular formula of Gold Bond powder you got so used to.