The Late Night Rundown – Jon Stewart

Back in the 70′s, there was only Johnny Carson.  But since the retirement of the undisputed King of Late Night in 1992, there has been a plethora of new shows pop up, each with the same basic formula, but unique in their own way. After reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, I have become addicted to late-night television all over again.  So I am starting a new series of posts dedicated to the many hosts out there currently making us laugh after prime time, analyzing one at a time.

If one were to watch old Daily Shows from the 90’s, when it was Craig Kilborn at the helm, a completely different program would be found.  Where Kilborn, as he usually did, made the show more about the host than the topics discussed, Stewart transformed the Daily Show into an award-winning political/news satire program.  Kilborn’s show was novel and goofy; Stewart’s is smart, irreverent, and edgy.

In the twelve years Stewart has hosted, he has become a prominent figurehead in news, comedy, politics, and punditry, whether he likes it or not.  Many young people have claimed they “get their news” from the Daily Show, essentially a comedy program, and Jon Stewart is their anchor.  Some call him a hero; Fox News likes to call him a cog in the liberal media machine.  He and colleague Stephen Colbert even held an enormously successful rally at the Washington Mall.  The theme? Restoring sanity to America.

Many thought that with the exit of goofball President Bush, many topical comics, Stewart included, would have little to rant about.  But the Daily Show is as fresh as ever, lampooning colossal fuck-ups by politicians, verbal hypocrisies from the Tea Party, and general fear-mongering from the cable news outlets.  Even though we have a more articulate, poised President, there’s still plenty of material to be found, and Stewart dishes it out each night.  In addition, his team of “correspondents” is one of the best in the show’s history, featuring rising stars Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and Jason Jones.  Asif Mandvi and Samantha Bee throw some worthy punches as well.

But the star is undeniably Stewart – the material changes with the news, but Stewart always acts as the voice of reason, usually merely stating the obvious so bluntly it is utterly hilarious.  His interviewing is conversational and purposeful.  Jon is casual with Hollywood stars, attentive with insightful authors and professors, direct and in command with political and media figureheads.  He knows his audience, who aren’t like the rest of Comedy Central’s dreck tuning in for Daniel Tosh – they are here to laugh, yes, but also to learn.  Jon knows when to tickle the funny bone and when to bring the viewer in closer for an honest, earnest look.

If there’s any doubt Stewart’s influence is apparent, we need only look to last December, where he devoted an entire program to the 9/11 First Responders Act (a bill that would give financial aid to firefighters and policemen suffering from medical issues related to the attack on the World Trade Center), a bill that Congress and the media were ignoring, and one Jon Stewart felt very passionately about.  He interviewed a group of NYC firefighters and police officers, first responders to 9/11, all of whom were suffering from illness because of their heroic deeds, and who couldn’t afford their medical bills.  The episode aired on Thursday; by Saturday, the media circus around the bill was staggering, and within weeks, Congress made it law.  Stewart started the conversation, and the nation listened.  To a late-night comedian.  Who, unlike most un-funny “news” anchors, actually has something to say.

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