Strange new distempers assail the liberal marketplace of ideas. Late last year, The New Republic — America’s century-old bastion of tough-minded liberal policy savvy — collapsed under the inane market pressures of Silicon Valley dilettantism. Recent reports show that the most aggressively liberal cable network, MSNBC, is in a ratings and revenue free fall. Then last night, comedian Jon Stewart shocked his devoted “Daily Show” audience with his announcement that he intends to leave the anchor desk of his faux-news franchise at the end of the year. Together with the abdication of Stewart protege Steven Colbert — who left his “Colbert Report” perch in December to prepare to replace David Letterman at CBS’ “The Late Show” — Stewart’s pending departure means that Comedy Central’s once ironclad monopoly on liberal edginess is broken.
The months ahead will produce ample commentary on what this means for the entertainment annex of the American punditocracy. In the run-up to Stewart’s official farewell — which isn’t yet fixed, beyond the host’s statement that it will happen “sometime this year” — accolades for his “Daily Show” and its legacy will be long and fulsome. Nothing remotely comparable accompanied the bum rush given Stewart’s predecessor, Craig Kilborn, a genial former sports talker of no clear ideological pedigree. Stewart, before he took over “The Daily Show” 16 years ago, was probably best known as an aspiring anchor on another fake cable-talk franchise, “The Larry Sanders Show.” He lent the flailing brand a strong political identity, and the long nightmare of the George W. Bush presidency helped sharpen the show’s satirical bite. “The Daily Show” was undeniably at its best laying into the jingoistic lies of the Bush White House’s “war on terror,” the ludicrously botched case for the invasion of Iraq and the squalor of Bush domestic policy, from the workaday corruption of Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department to the debacle of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans to the 2008 economic collapse.
But the post-Bush run of the show felt increasingly rudderless. Targets for satirical outrage are no less plentiful, God knows, in the Barack Obama years, which have seen precisely zero uptick in substantive economic reforms, the boom in unaccountable drone warfare and the steady metastasizing of the national surveillance state. Yet rather than home in on such failures of state power, Stewart and his writing team have whaled away at safer, fatter and more reassuring targets such as the “bullshit mountain” at Fox News. A loudly advertised Stewart “feud” with Fox demagogue Bill O’Reilly — who was the inspiration for Colbert’s long-running caricature of a hyperpatriotic war pundit — produced a number of one-on-one dust-ups between the two cable commentators, but as satire, this gimmick felt barely a step up from an argument on the “American Idol” judges panel.
And that, in a sense, was the larger problem with the “Daily Show” franchise: It had breached the ill-defined boundary separating take-no-prisoners satire from the terminally chummy protocols of American celebrity culture. By the time Stewart’s show had become a breakout liberal hit, it had made its name as a fast-track entry into the star-making machinery of broadcast shtick. In addition to catapulting Colbert into stardom, “The Daily Show” birthed the careers of Oscar-nominated Steve Carell, John Oliver, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Rob Riggle and Aasif Mandvi. Colbert’s successor, Larry Wilmore, who now helms Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” is also a “Daily Show” alum. Glancing over this roster, it’s not hard to do the math: Laying into the hypocrisies and enforcement failures of, say, the Obama-era Securities and Exchange Commission or the president’s long-broken promise to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay isn’t likely to land you a regular gig on the cast of “The Office,” a sideline as an amiable pitchman for a telecom ad campaign or your own cable-talk franchise. But compulsively attacking your ideological opposite numbers in the compromised and truth-challenged sanctums of Fox News is both easy sport and (more important) the quickest, most frictionless brand of TV-friendly “edginess” on offer. Rupert Murdoch’s gleaming Fox empire is itself commercially invested, after all, in portraying enterprising “Daily Show” correspondents, together with their purported comrades in the mythical liberal media establishment, as irredeemable ideological hacks in their own right, so it’s all one giant win-win in the market-savvy logic of celebrity branding.
There are, however, hidden costs in this soft-focus satirical branding strategy. One of the most obvious is Stewart’s cringingly deferential track record as an interviewer. He’s had war and torture apologist Condoleezza Rice on the show repeatedly to tout her self-serving political memoirs and sat by obligingly as she reprised the bogus case for the invasion of Iraq and even went so far as to claim that the pro-democracy Arab Spring protests were a direct outgrowth of the American imperial errand in Iraq. At the end of one appearance, he sent Rice off with this warm encomium: “I’m telling you, you gotta pick up [Rice’s book] about a patriotic American who is, if I may, doing the best that …” At this moment, as he caught himself tiptoeing up to a parting criticism of Rice’s track record, he pulled back, saying, “We’ll have the other conversation a different time.”
Needless to say, they didn’t — or rather, on Rice’s next “Daily Show” star turn, Stewart made an oblique reference to the phony intelligence underlying the invasion of Iraq, with the obsequious disclaimer “I hate to keep harping on this” and then let Rice duly recite her standard talking points on the gorgeous, if at times messy, forward march of American-sponsored democracy in the Middle East. There are many terms for such kid-glove treatment of the power elite, but satire definitely isn’t one of them.
More insidiously tied to the celebrity-satire nexus where “The Daily Show” sits is an unquenchable taste for the fish-in-a-barrel blasting of the credulous rubes marooned in the hopelessly out-of-it American interior. This lazy, crude comic tradition owes its most immediate roots to Sasha Baron Cohen’s plodding and unfunny brand of pseudo-documentary farce, but lately “Daily Show” correspondents have taken it over as their own prized turf. The show’s M.O. here has become rote and formulaic: Assemble a group of buffoonish local or state culture crusaders — the more earnest and evangelical the better — and ambush them with a fake-sympathetic interview that turns abruptly confrontational and is subsequently edited to achieve maximum humiliation for the interview subject. In Alabama alone, the show has in recent weeks sent correspondents to assail a proposed law offering legal protection for fetuses and another that would ban the nonexistent spread of Sharia across the state.
Of course, such legal initiatives are richly mockable — but it’s also fair game to ask just what sort of point is served by relentlessly sending up the dimly lit worldview of your designated cultural inferiors. The cumulative effect of these broad-target broadcasts, inevitably, is to reinforce the insular mindset of what H.L. Mencken (the granddaddy of American boob-baiting satirists) called “the civilized minority” — the permanently disenchanted elite of better-thinking Americans assailed on all sides by the embarrassing crazes and religious crusades of the class of gullible dopes and hillbillies that Mencken famously branded the “booboisie.”
None of this is to say that our much-loved “Daily Show” personalities are poised to become permanently aggrieved, antidemocratic know-it-alls in the Mencken vein; John Oliver, to note one heartening exception, has carved out an impressive niche at “Last Week Tonight” by combining arch satirical commentary with deep-diving investigative reporting, refreshingly electing to let his retiring British persona take a backseat to the actual work of journalism. It is, however, a chance to take some longer-term stock of what typically happens when we make stars of our satirists — and to ponder the hazards that may await us when the formerly open and inclusive creed of American liberalism gleefully enlists in the celebritist campaign of cultural secession.