The US comedian’s great achievement was making American and global politics a fascinating and informative subject for satire, says Ben Dowell. It’s about time we had someone in the UK who could follow suit
During the last US Presidential Election I wasn’t alone in understanding what was happening in the crucial battle for the White House from my nightly encounters with a middle aged New York comedian.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart provided me with all I needed to know about who was doing and saying what – all filtered through Stewart’s sharp, satirical eye. And, before his surprise decision to quit, his illumination of the coming election battle next year on Comedy Central was going to be required viewing. But sadly it is not to be…
His satire was like a laser gun, and for me it worked wonders even outside the election cycle with illuminating dissections of various pieces of US legislation and politicking that didn’t get reported much here but were nevertheless vitally important.
US Senators who I had never heard of were suddenly brought to life in my living room, the full, often ridiculous, sense of how they were going about their business in the greatest democracy in the world (so called) was laid bare every night. It was satire which actually taught you something.
Of course he pricked the inherent absurdity of US political showmanship and debate – the big hair, perfect teeth, the calls to God. But there was a serious point here too. What happened in the US mattered – to Americans – but also to us.
But it wasn’t just me, ask the more than 2 million viewers who tuned into his show every night. Or the respondents to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center that showed that showed that more young people got their news from The Daily Show and its twin The Colbert Report than they did from the New York Times, the august “Grey Lady” of American news journalism.
Stewart made a Senate Committee hearing on Welfare Reform devastatingly funny, teasing out why the issues mattered, and letting us laugh along the way. And he made it look easy.
He was also a thorn in the side of Fox News and the many right-wing commentators, such as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly who continued to spar with Stewart even though to my mind he got destroyed every time they had a head-to-head.
With the help of some brilliant video packages, Stewart was adept picking out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Fox’s daily outpourings such as with this memorable comparison of Fox’s response to the Utoya shootings in Norway with its treatment of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. It’s as devastating as it is hilarious:
But while he provided a much-needed voice of liberal America on the airwaves, he wasn’t the left’s puppet, and often poked fun at Barack Obama:
His interviews benefited from his dazzlingly sharp eye and ear and a voice that never took itself too seriously. When the ultimately doomed Democrat senator John Edwards announced that he was going to run for the Presidency on Stewart’s programme, the host quipped: “We’re a fake show, so I want you to know this may not count.”
He spoke at a remove from the political world with the voice of the satirist – but this meant that he also got to engage with the movers and shakers (politicians being a breed always keen to show they are game for a laugh). Not for nothing did Obama, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and even Gordon Brown sit down across the table from Stewart and chew the fat with the guy.
It was also fascinating to watch how our own phone-hacking scandal was viewed in the US. Stewart’s decision to feign vomiting when reporting the interception of messages left for murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler offered as effective a demonstration of the revulsion felt about the story as you can imagine. His recent impassioned and sensitive treatment of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was impressive too:
It was his show, but he wasn’t afraid to let others have the limelight. His array of comedians from “Senior Black correspondent” Larry Wilmore to our very own “British Correspondent” John Oliver (who has gone on to even better things), there was a collegiate spirit about The Daily Show that made the programme sing. It was also clearly a fun place to work.
The only question of course is why we can’t have something similar. The closest we have come was probably Channel 4’s 10 O’clock Live when Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell and co tried their best. But it never quite worked. Maybe our news media is already pretty irreverent anyway – meaning that we don’t need the pricking of political egos that America clearly does.
Whatever the answer, he will be sorely missed. Maybe he’ll come over here? We can but hope…