Culture

'WaPo' Wishes 'Daily Show' Would Just Die Already, But Should It?

(Rex Features via AP Images)

After “The Daily Show” decided to dig beneath the depths of tastelessness to respond to the Supreme Court ruling overturning the Texas abortion clinic safety laws, even left-wing and far-left-wing media weren’t amused.

How awful was it? Conservatives were retweeting Meghan McCain in solidarity:

The drunk intern who runs “The Daily Show” Twitter account was then instructed to do a little you-know-what covering and managed to spectacularly fail at that too:

So if they weren’t promoting abortions, what were they promoting? Single motherhood? Unprotected sex? Irrefutable proof that a higher mandatory minimum wage is unjustified?

This prompted the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg to contemplate whether The Daily Show should have simply called it a wrap when Jon Stewart left.

Her premise for why “The Daily Show” should have perhaps been laid to rest is essentially the same as something I wrote last month: Jon Stewart was a tough act to follow and Trevor Noah was going to have a tough time doing so no matter what.

Here’s her take:

I understand the business and political imperatives that militated keeping “The Daily Show” alive. The series was a critical element of Comedy Central’s brand and a beacon for progressives during a Republican presidential administration. But I can’t help but wonder if Noah might have been better off developing a new show under his own imprimatur, rather than trying to fill the precise emotional void Stewart left behind, much as it was better for Stephen Colbert to go off and create something odd and amazing and entirely his own as he did with “The Colbert Report.” And though it’s true Stewart inherited “The Daily Show” from Craig Kilborn, he consolidated the series’ identity; his departure might have been a natural end point.

It’s adorable that she calls “The Daily Show” “a beacon for progressives during a Republican presidential administration,” as if it was the only entertainment option in media that liberals had when George W. Bush was president. We all know how bereft of a leftist point of view the media is, don’t we? Also, the show has been on the air for twenty years, and twelve of them have been when a Democrat was in the White House.

Despite this predictable and mistaken bubble view, Rosenberg eventually gets to a point that I couldn’t agree with more:

And it’s not merely late-night satirical news shows that are running too long. Everywhere, it seems, it’s become a truism that every television show ought to run as long as possible, and wrapping a series up in a conclusive way is absolutely vital, even if a show is stretched beyond its creative or narrative breaking point before that conclusion arrives.

This is something that has come up a lot lately, both with friends in and out of the entertainment industry. A television show has a shelf life, and it is remarkably unsatisfying to watch a show you’re emotionally attached to limp through an extra season or two with increasingly fantastical story lines.

Take “Sons of Anarchy,” a favorite of mine that just ended a couple of seasons ago, for example. For years, it was one of the most riveting and well written dramas on television, an intense combination of action and fully fleshed-out characters. Even the lesser, peripheral characters were so well defined that you knew exactly who and what they were about even if they only showed up on camera for a few seconds. Though some of the story lines seemed to be a stretch, they always worked within the parameters of suspension of disbelief that most devoted viewers established for themselves.

Sadly, FX renewed it for a seventh season, which is generally one season too long for a television drama. The show began channeling its inner Shonda Rhimes and it couldn’t have been more ridiculous had the central characters’ Harleys all sprouted wings and taken flight.

That’s what Rosenberg got right, but it’s really more of a commentary on the state of television in the streaming, social media era rather than about “The Daily Show” in particular.

Allow me to address that.

While, as mentioned before, it is difficult to continue a hugely successful franchise after the departure of wildly popular host who was there for years, it isn’t impossible. That’s especially true for a franchise that relies on topical humor. American audiences don’t grow tired of watching topical political humor. Even in a highly fragmented market, a brand built on that should be able to continue its success, even if it falls off a bit. With even minimal effort, Trevor Noah should have been able to drag along a substantial part of the devoted audience that “The Daily Show” had when Stewart departed.

Alas, he opted for yawning, echo chamber ideological comedy rather than effort.

As I have written before, despite his obvious liberal bent, Stewart had no sacred cows. Every few weeks he would tear into someone on the left with such skillful comedic ferocity that all of conservative media would be abuzz with praise for him. Yes, he would immediately return to a steady offering of bashing conservatives, but that one crumb he tossed us was so well executed that it would keep us happy for a while. Whenever Stewart did something like that, he widened his audience, however briefly.

Most liberal political comedians and comedy writers in America function in a cocooned oblivion that never takes the existence of this potential audience into account. The overwhelming leftist control of American media doesn’t require them to that much, and that’s where we see “The Daily Show” faltering.

In a word, it’s become lazy.

My friend Jon Gabriel recently wrote a post explaining the difference between wit and snark which helps explain this laziness. Snark is merely a reaction, not something that requires any real comedic skill. Combine that as a default punchline with material that never varies in subject matter or targets and you’ve just put your devout liberal audience into a “one millionth Sarah Palin is dumb joke” coma.

“The Daily Show” and Trevor Noah aren’t floundering because Jon Stewart’s talent is gone, they’re in trouble because, along with his talent, his perspective is no longer around. He understood that it isn’t just American liberals who have cable television subscriptions and, hey, we also like to be entertained.

An occasional punchline would probably help too.