Trevor Noah is the Jon Stewart that The Daily Show needs right now
On October 30th, 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) on the National Mall in Washington DC. Over 100,000 people flooded the strip of federal land that separates our country’s most hallowed political castles to watch a reluctant hero on the tail-end of his political pundit career attempt to galvanize his cultish following into action.
In the announcement for the rally, Stewart had appealed to our sense of reason and understanding:
We live in troubled times, with real people facing very real problems, problems that have real, if imperfect, solutions that I believe 70-80% of our population could agree to try, and could ultimately live with…
… But why don’t we hear from these 70-80%’ers? Well most likely because you have shit to do.
While it wasn’t billed or promoted as a specifically “liberal” event, I was in attendance that day and can personally attest the National Mall was a much more bluish shade of purple that day; signs like “Make Awkward Sexual Advances, Not War”# and “Am I a Liberal Elitist or Am I Just Educated?”# alacritously stripping away any semblance of a bipartisan affair. And after an impassioned final closing speech from Jon Stewart himself, it really felt like this was going to be the start of a brighter day for liberals and bluish moderates who were staring down the barrel of a very important midterm election:
As David Axelrod (former senior adviser to President Obama) said when explaining why Obama appeared on The Daily Show before the midterms, “We were right on the verge of a really tough election. Part of the motivation was we wanted to galvanize the vote. When you talk about midterm elections, the great challenge for Democrats is there’s a drop off in the vote, and it’s disproportionately in the young, in minorities.”
Yet less than a month after that inspiriting rally, the GOP swooped in and beat the pants off Democrats in both the Senate and Congressional races…
Now I know Jon Stewart has consistently and adamantly denied his own political power# – the closest I think he’s come to admitting his own influence is when he said, “Maybe it is a weird form of sideline activism, if that’s even a thing” – but as Tom Junot at Esquire put it, “when the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms, he pretty much proved his point. He was no player. He had no political power. He’d proven he was beyond all that by presiding over the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history.”
Maybe that’s why on his penultimate episode of The Daily Show, Stewart felt the need to dedicate an entire segment to mocking his own political inabilities, just so we could really see what our ‘undying love and devotion’ to Mr. Stewart had gotten us.
Touching on everything from Wall Street to Fox News to the political fuckuppery he so fastidiously and dutifully poked out each night, he could only laugh along at the blatant lack of impact that his ‘work’ had accomplished, even shouting at the end of the bit: “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started! Have I caused this?!”
Obviously he did not, but by the very nature of his show Jon Stewart wasn’t able to actively prevent it either.
He reminds us in New York Magazine:
We’re not doing the work. Activists do the work, and they’re slogging it out day in and day out in the trenches of those terribly bureaucratic and corrosive and corrupt societies.
If we give a shout-out to that, or if an articulation of something does them some good, that’s wonderful. But I never try and confuse what we do on the show with what real people do to change the system.
While I assume a strong contingent of hardcore liberal activists regularly watch The Daily Show, how many of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated Daily Show watchers would you bet are active activists, like the kind Jon Stewart is praising above? I mean, I get it; it’s really hard to be an activist when you’re watching the show online at your office at 11am the next day. But the point remains.
During Jon Stewart’s tenure as host of The Daily Show, he marched on the steps of Congress for 9/11-reponders’ rights and took time off to make a film about a wrongly-imprisoned political journalist. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Politico, “I don’t think there’s been a single person in the media who’s more strongly influenced the support of veterans’ policies than Jon Stewart.”
What have we, his beloved audience, done in comparison?
I don’t think I need to throw it to Random Nerds Senior Political Correspondent Olive the Pug# to tell you that political apathy in the US is worse than ever, while extremists continue to gain traction.
Sadly, over the past few years, it seems like watching The Daily Show has become the television-viewing form of hashtag activism. Tuning in and feeling slightly more informed than you did 22 minutes ago has become a nice lazy way to still be a “good liberal” while getting your jollies in too. It’s high-minded entertainment – what it had always promised exclusively to be – but it’s also become an unsatisfactory replacement for something else too, something more vital.
Jon Stewart, Destroyer of Worlds, is still the hero he deserves to be, but not the one we need right now.
And that’s why John Oliver seems like god damn Superman these days.
When talking to GQ, Stephen Colbert said that he knew it was time to retire the Colbert Report persona because he “no longer felt that that model served to address the national mood.” And our national mood has admittedly been a bit uppity as of late.
Remember that Colbert Report started airing during a time when our country was paralyzed with crippling fear, when Fox News was reminding us everyday how close we were to inevitable annihilation. But now, in 2015, we’ve really started to figure out just how much power we have at the tips of our individual fingers. We have become a nation of people who want to do something, especially if that something doesn’t mean having to physically do much.
Enter Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Thanks to the relatively relaxing freedom of only having to put together one show a week as opposed to four, John Oliver and his team are creating a program that Edward Helmore of the The Guardian described as “a new, more calls-to-arms direction for US political satire.” Instead of just pointing out the foibles of the American political media industry and the soap opera of Congressional clowning, Oliver has gone after reasonable and vulnerable targets.
He laid out his show’s strategy in an interview with Rolling Stone:
I wanted to take everything Jon had taught me…and think, ‘What could I do differently?’ And that would be ‘depth’ and ‘length.’ There’s loads of responsibility that comes with getting extra time, and you better fucking use it.
Use it he fucking has.
As Jon Stewart said to New York Magazine, “I think what John’s been able to do really effectively is utilize those same tools but in this more considered form.”
In only two short seasons, John Oliver has actively been a part of successful campaigns to do amazing things like save internet neutrality, attack fraudulent for-profit universities, and reform bail bond laws. In fact, there are multiple articles dedicated to what TIME dubbed “The John Oliver Effect”:
By helping us “focus [our] indiscriminate rage in a useful direction,” John Oliver has been helping us save our world one 18-minute PSA at a time. Sent here from
Krypton England to show us the error of our ways, he is helping us be better humans.
However, as he humbly reminded Charlie Rose when Mr. Rose began to flatter him about crashing the FCC’s website:
We didn’t crash their website, Charlie – that’s a huge accusation. We merely pointed people to their website and told them why they should be angry about it, and they went in droves.
Jon Stewart – a man with humble New Jersey origins – may have been the best of us Average Joes, but John Oliver has been the alien whose wide-eyed arrival opened up our worldview and taught us how to put our individual powers to good use.
And Trevor Noah is here to take us even further…
If we consider a white guy with a British accent and a self-deprecating wit alien, then Trevor Noah is like the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.#
The son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father, Noah grew up in Soweto (outside Johannesburg) in South Africa when it was still under apartheid#. He is simultaneously one of the most famous comedians in Africa and an absolute star in London, yet a relative nobody in the land he is about to talk to four nights a week. He’s edgy with his subject material, but he seems incredibly reserved when actually speaking with people.
He’s a global citizen and a true outsider – and he’s exactly what we need right now.
During a press-exclusive Q&A session at the new set, Noah was quick to address that point too:
I found, traveling around the world, that America was the one place where I innately understood what was happening. South Africa and the United States have a very similar history. It’s different timelines, but the directions we’ve taken, the consequences, dealing with the aftermath of what we then think is the beginning of democracy.
And then realizing that’s just the first step — that freedom is the beginning of the conversation.
When Jon Stewart was signing off at the Rally for Sanity, he said, “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this; you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.” But mere presence has turned out to be ineffectual, and Trevor Noah is going to demand more. Where Stewart relied on our reason to drive us to action, Noah looks to be aware that awareness doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.
In a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, Noah joked:
People are now able to protest in their underwear. And that almost defies what protesting should be about. The whole point of a protest is to get out of bed, put your clothes on, walk out into the cold and say, “I stand for this, I march for this.”
Now you don’t really have to have that conviction because you’re on the couch in your underwear going, “You know what? I don’t like that either,” so you punch in a few characters and then say, “Yeah I fought for the cause.”
It’s no coincidence either that The Daily Show also recently hired Baratunde Thurston, a comedian with a The Onion pedigree who started the digital agency Cultivated Wit, to help retool their digital production. It’s a place where the show has always been surprisingly lacking given its fanbase, and that Twitter audience is there for the engaging, the taking, and the
manipulating motivating. Jon Stewart told Seinfeld that when he took over the show, he thought, “Anybody can napalm a field. Let’s be surgical. Let’s figure out what we’re doing.” And this is the next step in Daily Show surgical technology.
The big question, however, is whether we’re going to allow them to operate.
The backlash with Noah’s hiring came almost instantaneously, as a few select jokes on Twitter were waved as proof that Noah was a misogynist and an anti-semite. But with graceful tact he brushed them aside:
To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) March 31, 2015
And earlier today, before the first show has even aired, liberal rags like the self-flagellating Salon began pointing to Noah’s unfamiliarity with our government as a sign of the Stewartless end times — “Over the years Stewart was a valuable counterpoint to Fox News and their friends. He gave his audience needed perspective, critical insight, and reasoned arguments” — not realizing that our myopic obsession to focus on the inefficient parlor games of Congress isn’t the heroic task it once was. While it may be as important as ever to keep up to speed about what our representatives are up to, the United States is not the only country in the world.
Much to our chagrin, there might be bigger stories to tell.
In that Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode, Seinfeld has trouble trying to find an applicable sports metaphor when explaining something to Noah and he says, “in football… in your football…” and Noah begins to laugh. Seinfeld gives up his train of thought and asks, “What made you laugh about ‘your football’? That I’m trying to include you?” to which Noah replies, “That you’re excluding me!”
Then Noah explains:
The Super Bowl, the final, the biggest sporting event of football had 100 million viewers watching.
A random match during the season — not post-season, not any final, no club nothing — a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona had 400 million viewers.
Clearly that is THE football. By the rules of democracy and just numbers alone, that is THE football.”
To which Seinfeld, an American legend, could only reply, “You’re right… I love the World Cup?”
Trevor Noah, the hero we need right now, is here to save us from ourselves.
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