In the mid-1950s, Sid Caesar, with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and a group of brilliant writers including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and later Woody Allen, collaborated on live comedy series, including Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. The episodes often featuring sketches that were hilarious take-offs on movies such as From Here to Eternity and Sunset Boulevard. You can finally see those shows again, but only on DVD. For decades, Caesar resisted syndication because the sketches (some ran twenty minutes) would have to be sliced up for commercials, which he thought would ruin them.
In the mid-1970s, Lorne Michaels assembled a team of terrific comics and launched Saturday Night Live , which with ups and downs still appears and occasionally scores a satirical bull's-eye. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dana Carvey mastered George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot. In 2008, Tina Fey nailed Sarah Palin. But for the most part, SNL's programming has been less political than comic (and at least to me, rarely funny enough to stay up late for).
And then there is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which Stewart has been doing since 1999. It is taped live (and only very rarely are there re-takes). It appears four nights a week for forty-two weeks a year. Stewart and his team are descendents of the sketch masters of Caesar and company. They have adapted some of the "faux" news style of SNL's "Weekend Update" and political commentary. But if you are old enough to have watched the evolution of live television over the previous fifty years, there is no question that Stewart is the champ for wit, edge, and endurance. Caesar was a genius, but he was constrained by his era from letting loose on politicians and most of the other cultural anomalies of the time. Remember, in the 1950s, you couldn't even say "pregnant" on television.
Stewart and his wing-man Stephen Colbert are not limited by convention. In that respect, basic cable is a decided plus. Night after night, Stewart's characterization of political activity, especially as portrayed on cable news, is so sharp and often so revealing about the hypocrisies of our national dialogue that he frames events in ways that are indelible, at least to the audience he reaches. The exact size is hard to measure. The first broadcast at 11:00 p.m. EST reaches about two million viewers or so, but the rebroadcasts and downloads add millions more to the total audience. When Comedy Central started showing the replay at 7:00 p.m. instead of 8:00 p.m., I was finally forced to learn the intricacies of our DVR, or risk missing the shows and acknowledging that I rarely make it to 11:00 p.m.
From adolescence to senescence, the fans of The Daily Show share an admiration that borders on awe for the intelligence of the commentary, extends through the staged bits with "correspondents" to serious interviews with presidents, scientists, and every author of stature that can get past the bookers to schedule an appearance. As a publisher, I can tell you that when an author appears on the show, sales invariably spike. But what is most impressive is that Stewart usually (not always) uses the four or five minutes of conversation to get to what the author wants to say even when—as is often the case—Stewart disagrees profoundly with the message. I like the device that has been used in the last year or so of having extended interviews on the Web that goes well beyond that can be crammed into the twenty-two minutes on the air.
Last spring, I taught a seminar on media criticism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, during which I used an acquaintance with one of The Daily Show producers to arrange a visit for my class. The visit was not just to view the taping, but also to meet with a lead writer, correspondent John Oliver and my producer friend. I promised that the actual conversation would be off-the-record (so we didn't have to navigate approvals through the hierarchy of Comedy Central and Viacom). But I will say that the most striking takeaway to me was twofold:
- Jon Stewart is not merely the star of the show. He is the essential ingredient of its spirit and content. Beginning with the morning meeting at 9:00 a.m. and right through the taping of the broadcast, Stewart is shaping and editing every word. I can't imagine anything getting on the air without his approval.
- The Daily Show staff resists taking themselves as seriously as their fans do. Ask whether they realize their impact on a significant number of Americans and they dismiss that earnestness by pointing out that theirs is a comedy show on television. Taking themselves too seriously, they assert, is certain to undermine the value of the show's irreverence.
The chemistry of what makes a classic is impossible to really diagram. So, other than to say that The Daily Show provides an element of enjoyment and insight on our life and times, I won't try to speculate how they manage to do it. Right now, Stewart and the team have a huge bestseller, Earth: A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race, and he's got his Rally to Restore Sanity scheduled for October 30, although no one seems to know exactly what that means. Colbert's program is also a work of extraordinary talent, but because he needs to maintain a character throughout, there are times when his messages are hard to track. His appearance before Congress recently, for example, left both admirers and critics slightly befuddled.
Stewart is unencumbered by the need to pretend who he is. The person who we see night after night is a satirist of incredible skill who has the benefit—which his predecessors like Sid Caesar did not have—of being able to say what he really thinks. Most of what Stewart says is meant to highlight the bad news in our political and media culture. But the mere fact that Stewart is on the air is good news to be celebrated. Recently, he appeared at the 92nd Street YMHA before a crowd of about a thousand people to promote his book and was interviewed by NPR's Terry Gross. To close she said, "I just want to say thank you for giving me the privilege of talking with you ... and please let me lead the standing ovation for you and the work you do." As one, the audience rose.