Jon Stewart’s decision to step away from “The Daily Show” and the recent end of “The Colbert Report” seem certain to rearrange the sleeping habits of millions of Americans, at least for a while. I’m among them.
Stephen Colbert had the better show. His satire was repeatedly and unmistakably brilliant on almost every occasion, laserlike in focus and always funny. The humor was so perfect the shows don’t seem dated — even now the specifics of the setup seem less important than the joke.
“The Daily Show” lacks that precision. Mocking the casual banalities of cable news can be humorous, of course, but too easy. Fox News and MSNBC edge close to self-parody often enough: Nothing Jon Stewart says about Bill O’Reilly is funnier than actually watching Bill O’Reilly.
Yet historians may conclude Stewart’s show was more important than Colbert’s. Because “The Daily Show” tackled the subjects it did, in the way that it did, millions of people learned facts about their world and why those facts mattered.
That is no small accomplishment. “Daily Show” viewers, particularly those holed up in college dorms or in small first-time apartments, often learned more about government from one “Daily Show” than a week of, say, Brian Williams. Or, to be fair, acres of print in the newspaper or on a website.
Stewart always resisted this responsibility. He claimed his show was fake news, but he was only half right: The premise was fake, but the news was real enough. And if millennials now understand what a continuing resolution is, or how Obamacare works, we shouldn’t care that the knowledge came wrapped in slapstick performances or silly sight gags on “The Daily Show.”
Some people of a certain generation — mine — are convinced 20-somethings don’t care about their world. I think the opposite is the case. The young people I meet are more knowledgeable, passionate and curious about their nation than almost anyone else.
Yet they are also strangely cynical, convinced politics is rigged and voting is a waste. Some blame “The Daily Show” for that attitude, but I’m not among them. Young people are cynical because the childlike squabbling of their parents is tiresome and useless, not because their favorite TV show mocks that behavior.
Perhaps the challenge for the next Jon Stewart is addressing that cynicism. For all the disdain heaped upon them, after all, elections still matter. Ask the people of Kansas.
Now, your moment of Zen.