There are so many things that make this election season one without precedent. Why, then, has a faction of late-night punditworld responded with a reversion? Earlier this week, Stephen Colbert resurrected his satirical “Stephen Colbert” character, and then, last night, he invited the retired Jon Stewart to take over his Late Night desk for a classic 10-minute Daily Show rant. The biggest shock: The routines have felt vital and fresh, not mere nostalgia bait or retreads.
The reason for the throwback to golden-years Comedy Central fake news probably lies in politics itself. Stewart’s and Colbert’s original heydays were during the George W. Bush era; their entire personas are based not on indiscriminately satirizing the entire world’s absurdities but rather the particular absurdities of America’s right wing. Under Obama, that meant a certain amount of punching down. Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention, though, offered an even more unvarnished display of popular conservative thinking, attitudes, opinions, and bluster to hold America’s attention than, well, the last RNC. Colbert’s retitled program this week conveyed his glee at the prospect: “The 2016 Trumpublican Donational Conventrump Starring Donald Trump as the Republican Party* *May Contain Traces of Republican.” (His comparatively deflated DNC title: “The 2016 Democratic National Convincing, A Technically Historic Event: Death. Taxes. Hillary.”)
Stewart’s segment last night reminded of a lot of his virtues, and the most overlooked of them might be his ability to puncture ideological bubbles on both sides of the spectrum. His great muse, Fox News, is such an echo chamber for opinions that it led to "epistemic closure” becoming a buzz phrase to describe Republicans. But watching him take down Sean Hannity’s hypocrisies about Trump and Obama made me think about my own epistemic closure: When was the last time the average liberal-ish casual news consumer even had to remember Sean Hannity existed? Roger Ailes’s downfall is a reminder that Fox News has kept chugging along after Stewart left the air, and neither Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, nor Seth Meyers have subjected the network to the same prolonged scrutiny that he did—which means a certain segment of America is simply less informed about what another segment of America is thinking about. On Colbert last night, Stewart flaunted his ability to take the long view on political rhetoric, to compare punditry from nearly a decade ago to today. It’s an accountability and information mission that’s perhaps been too neglected lately.
Also on display was Stewart’s particular brand of moral clarity. No one can use pure indignation for a punchline like him. (Funniest moment: Hannity calls Trump a “blue-collar billionaire”; Stewart pauses and says, “That’s not a thing.”) But also few comedians would feel comfortable speechifying like Stewart did toward the end of his segment last night. Again, his point was a Republican takedown—but also, fundamentally, a call for unity: “You feel you’re this country’s rightful owners. There’s only one problem with that. This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it. It never was. There is no ‘real America.’ You don't own it. You don’t own patriotism. You don’t own Christianity. You sure as hell don’t own respect for the bravery and sacrifice of military, police, and firefighters.”
His righteousness was so bracing that his fans can’t help but hope for him to become a regular again on TV. Then again, Stewart was so effective because he had the right message for the right time, and anyone who agrees with his worldview hopes that he won’t be needed more than ever in 2017.