The comedy everyone used to talk about just isn’t as fresh or funny as it used to be
JAIME J. WEINMAN
“fake of The steam? news” Daily Two Show years comedy running ago, show was out the the hottest thing on basic cable (admittedly not a huge com-
petition). But last month, Onion A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin wrote that “the mystery, wonder and freshness are gone.” With the departure of executive producer Ben Karlin— who has been working on the show ever since Jon Stewart became its host—it may be time to ask: how much mileage is left in ironic jokes about political news?
Karlin has been a bit cryptic about why he left; he gave an interview to New York magazine in which he said nothing about his decision, but did say that the comedy business had drained him of the ability to find most things funny: “You definitely get more intellectual about comedy. The laugh impulse has been deadened.” The former writer for the main branch of The Onion, whom Stewart brought on board to give The Daily Show a similarly absurdist take on world events, is moving on to find what he calls “a new way of engaging the audience.” Meanwhile, the new showrunner is former head writer David Javerbaum, who was about to leave the show before Karlin announced his departure.
When Stewart took over the show from previous host Craig Kilborn in 1999, it had become stale after only three years in existence. It mostly consisted of ironic pieces where comedians asked foolish questions and duped people into giving ignorant answers. People were starting to get tired of that kind of humour; they didn’t know that Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen would come along seven years later and make a whole movie out of it. Stewart and Karlin retooled the show to be more political, focusing the mockery not on regular people but on those who deserved to be mocked: politicians and political reporters.
JON STEWART with (left to right) Steve Careil, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry and Samantha Bee
But it’s starting to seem that even that particular source of comedy isn’t without its limitations. The jokes in each episode of The Daily Show now follow a rigid pattern: either they show a clip of a politician saying something stupid, followed by a cut to Stewart’s shocked/bemused expression, or Stewart has to deal with a fake news “correspondent” who doesn’t quite understand what is going on in the world. The show can still be funny, but at the same time, it can be predictable—just as Kilborn’s version became predictable.
And it’s sometimes getting overshadowed by the program that follows it: The Daily Show’s own spinoff, The Colbert Report, which Stewart and Karlin helped create but don’t run day-to-day. Whereas in 2004 Stewart became international news for telling off the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire, in 2006 all the publicity and attention went to Stephen Colbert for his memorable speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where instead of telling off a couple of news hosts, he told off the President of the United States. On the last night of the 2006 season, it became apparent which of the two shows was willing to take chances and which one was in a rut. While The Daily Show did a fun but conven-
tional episode, The Colbert Report departed from its regular format to do a reality-bending special highlighting the self-absorption of Colbert’s character (and, by extension, the TV pundits he’s parodying). Stewart’s guest that night was Ben Stiller, plugging a movie; Colbert got Peter Frampton, Henry Kissinger and the incoming governor of New York.
There couldn’t have been a clearer indication of which show had the momentum. While The Colbert Report could be weird to the point of incomprehensibility, it was at least surprising. Meanwhile, The Daily Show had turned into comfort food for its mostly youthful audience, with Stewart’s Bush impression (“Heh-heh-heh”) as eagerly anticipated and easily predicted as Vanna White turning the letters on Wheel of Fortune.
A show sinking into comfortable decline often suffers key departures, and The Daily Show has lost other people besides Karlin. Most of the cast members from the 2004 season, when the U.S. presidential election helped the show expand its audience and influence, are no longer there. Steve Carell, the most popular cast member after Colbert, moved on to movie and TV stardom. Ed Helms (who joined the show in 2002)
and Canadian Samantha Bee (2003) still make appearances, but most of the others are as distant a memory as Craig Kilborn.
That left what the New York Times recently called “an unexpected talent vacuum.” Suddenly, Stewart had hardly any regular cast members to play off of, and had to devote much of the show to his snarky reports on the day’s headlines—with occasional wacky graphic effects. After a recent segment with quacking ducks running across the bottom of the screen, Stewart exclaimed: “We’ve completely given up.” And for a moment, it was hard to tell whether he was joking.
To fill the gaps, the show added a few new regulars, plus a number of comedians who contribute occasional segments, like nerdy PC pitchman John Hodgman. But the staff
fit writers ble adjusting the new seem performers’ to the be having comedy styles, trouto especially the way they interact with Stewart.
One of the secrets of The Daily Show’s success is that, in an age when stand-up comedy rules the roost, it has revived the style of the old-fashioned comedy team. Most routines
feature Stewart as the straight man, feeding set-up lines to addled correspondents. But for a comedy team to be effective, the funny partner has to have a clearly defined comic personality. Colbert became the embodiment of the arrogant, condescending journalist with totally unfounded self-confidence— a character he has carried over to The Colbert Report—while Carell created a sense of barely concealed hostility to Stewart.
Many of the new cast members haven’t created strong characters. Onlyjohn Oliver, The Daily Show’s first British correspondent, has had some success parodying the familiar cable-news figure of the condescending English reporter. But Dan Bakkedahl, who replaced Colbert, has elected to play a whiny, needy character who isn’t recognizable as a parody of any kind of real TV news figure. And Rob Riggle, the most recent addition to the cast, is such a non-specific character that most news profiles on him focus on what he did in real life (he’s a former Marine) rather than what he does on the show.
In the Kilborn era, before Stewart and Karlin arrived, The Daily Show often consisted of a bunch of generic parodies of the typical clueless reporter. Stewart and Javerbaum are still there, but some of that generic feeling is coming back. The best Daily Show bits avoided being standardized news spoofs—a cable version of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live—by adding an extra layer of pathos under the parody. Carell’s “Produce Pete” was both a satire of food advice programming and a funny piece of character comedy, where the TV personality played by Carell seemed increasingly disgusted with the necessity to look upbeat all the time. Even on a fake news show, character was important.
And it’s characterization that has allowed The Colbert Report to surpass its parent show in terms of influence and entertainment value. Because Colbert is playing someone with recognizable quirks and even a backstory (he keeps referring to his fear of bears and his failed career as a novelist), his show is almost as much a situation comedy as a parody; people tune in not only to hear jokes about the day’s news, but to see what Colbert’s character is up to. People used to want to see what Colbert was up to on The Daily Show, or witness Rob Corddry’s clueless fury when an interviewee didn’t respond exactly as he expected. Without that element of character comedy, all that’s left is a string of jokes about crooked politicians and stupid news anchors. And you can get those jokes on any late-night talk show, without having to pay for cable.
Even the other function of The Daily Show— as an oasis of sanity in the midst of the bizarre world of modern news—is increasingly being co-opted by other shows. In his Crossfire appearance, Stewart accused CNN of “hurting America,” and declared that even though he was a comedian, he wasn’t just out to amuse people (“I’m not going to be your monkey”). Despite his occasional denials of any serious purpose, he was staking out The Daily Show’s territory: the funny show with serious anger about the direction of politics and news.
But now, actual news channels are starting to tap into Stewart’s audience. Keith Olbermann, the host of the MSNBC news-andcommentary show Countdown, has become an unexpected success by combining sarcastic humour with long, outraged “Special Comment” segments about the evils of modern politicians. Rightly or wrongly, he’s trying to present himself as the person who’ll cut through the talking points and tell the truth— but that used to be Stewart’s job. How is he supposed to be the Last Sane Man when there are now some would-be Last Sane Men in the world of actual news programming?
There are signs that The Daily Show is starting to freshen its writing now that the new cast is in place. Stewart and his team have added a number of veteran writers to the staff, like Josh Lieb (NewsRadio) and Dan Sterling (King of the Hill)—people whose sitcom experience may help them write the character comedy that good Daily Show segments require. But what the show really needs is for one of its cast members to step up and become the new Colbert or Carell—a parody who’s somehow recognizable as a person. Until that happens, Daily Show viewers may have to settle for quacking ducks. M
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