A cry of dismay went out yesterday when Jon Stewart announced he would be leaving the Daily Show.Â Social media was filled with distressed fans. His departure, though, is good news for Comedy Central and good news for comedy generally.*
A bit of history — back at the dawn of cable channels, 25 years ago, there were two competing television comedy channels: The Comedy Channel and Ha! These two channels really were trying to get a grip on how to do comedy in the era of cable, and so were a mix of stand-up clips, old classic TV (similar to Nick at Night), talk shows, and things like MST3K. They merged to create Comedy Central.
In pulling those two together, Comedy Central never quite hit a big audience, but produced cult classics (Dr. Katz and Kids in the Hall spring to mind). It wasn’t until about a decade ago that they seemed to develop the right chemistry, with South Park, Reno 911, Chappelle’s Show, and the Daily Show/Colbert Report. Of those, South Park and The Daily Show were old standbys that had slowly built and maintained an audience, while Chappelle’s Show was a cultural juggernaut that suddenly imploded after two seasons (and Comedy Central hasn’t ever found a true heir to Chappelle since).
Here’s the problem — Reno 911 eventually faded, and that left South Park and The Daily Show franchise not just carrying the channel, but sucking the air out of everything else. Because cartoons are inherently more expensive and difficult to make than talk shows, South Park took a lot of money, but not a lot of programming space. The Daily Show, however, has become a problem.
These types of shows are addictive to basic cable channels: They are dirt cheap to make, and because the topics they deal with are so ephemeral, people are forced to watch them, well, DAILY, thus getting eyeballs on your advertisers.Â WhyÂ experiment with an ambitious scripted show with an entourage cast when you can just slap out a Colbert Report or a Tosh 2.0 for next to nothing? These shows might not be great, but cheap-and-reliable mediocrity keeps the profit margins much higher than more expensive show. Look at what Comedy Central has been doing over the last decade, and it’s clear that their programming has grown stale, the only good things being departures from The Daily Show style.
Aside from the staleness of their programming, the problem with The Daily Show is that, despite its efforts to market itself as young and hip (bringing to mind Steve Buscemi on 30 Rock) it’s a show for old people. Don’t believe me? Try watching an old episode of The Daily Show, anything more than two months old. Since the political critique rarely rises above the level of snark, and the pop culture references are so ephemeral, it’s no longer funny and often makes no sense out of the context of the moment.Â This isn’t a show for binge-watching young people to stream — it’s a show for the late 1990s. And while shows like this can probably find some niche, that niche is getting smaller and smaller. Two years after its cancelled, you won’t remember The Daily Show, and if you happen to find clips online, it will seem hopelessly dated, like Laugh-In. Ten years ago, my students all watched The Daily Show religiously. Today? Meh, maybe if someone posts a clip online that will disappear from their Facebook feed in a couple of days.
Of course, The Daily Show isn’t over. Heck, Jon Stewart wasn’t even the original host. But all those 30-somethings who still think they’re young and hip will find themselves scratching their heads at whomever the next host is, and grousing about how much funnier it was in the old days. Comedy Central will be forced to search for truly fresh programming — or embrace a role as one of the dying basic cable channels.
*In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess that I've never found Jon Stewart funny. Ever. When people post clips of him and shower them with great praise, I'm as puzzled as I am when people praise Friends, a show that was almost aggressive in its refusal to be amusing. Stewart seems to be able to take the most mediocre Tonight Show-style monologue and use his delivery to beat any humor our of it. He did the impossible -- he made me long for Jay Leno to deliver the same material. For the sake of this piece, though, I'm going to pretend that Jon Stewart isn't just funny, but is hilariously so. I'm going to pretend that Jon Stewart is the Funniest Man Ever to Live, the Voice of a Generation, a Revolution in Comedy, etc. Those who know me should be aware that this is merely a rhetorical position for the sake of this piece, and that I have not taken leave of my senses.