When Jon Stewart retires from The Daily Show after more than 16 years as its anchor, his replacement should do the unthinkable: stop targeting the Fox News Channel. Forget CNN and MSNBC too.
The cable news networks may be the show's most reliable foil. They certainly broadcast ample footage of familiar characters making fools of themselves in high-definition. But Stewart has long since explored every possible angle of their absurdity. He's hugely talented and beloved, so most of his fans have enjoyed watching him do the comedy TV equivalent of greatest-hits concerts in recent years.
But watching someone else mock Fox for the next decade would be like watching another team vanquish the Washington Generals after the Harlem Globetrotters quit. That's an entertainment case for a new focus.
There's an intellectual case too. Back in 1999, when Stewart took over the Comedy Central program, cable news was still a rising phenomenon. Fox News was just three years old. Satire had not yet begun to probe its many absurdities, and doing so was important. But the danger in focusing on cable news foibles as much as any other subject for 16 years is the way in which it elevates the target. Daily Show viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the cable news networks are the most significant source of dysfunction in American democracy. Some perspective: There are 321 million Americans.
"Combined, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC averaged 1.8 million viewers during the day and 2.85 million in primetime ," Huffington Post reports, adding that among adults 25-54, they're down 8 percent in daytime and 5 percent in primetime compared to last year. Granted, lots of influential people in Washington, D.C. and New York City watch cable news because, though aware of its embarrassments, they feel compelled to pay attention to what other elites pay attention to. Still, its prominence on The Daily Show has much more to do with the easy access to hours of video than the relative importance of cable news in the hierarchy of satire targets. We're long past a time when its flaws were not evident.
The Daily Show should declare victory and move on. But to what? I'd suggest that the next host get a large staff of journalistic researchers to delve into the substance of stories, some already in the public eye, some that the show could break as satire. But John Oliver has already pioneered that approach on his HBO program.
Stephen Colbert invented his own twist with The Colbert Report.
Perhaps the next Daily Show host will also surprise us with something we haven't quite seen. But if he or she tries to do the same show that Stewart did, I'll find it hard to watch, because he or she is unlikely to do that as well.