Daily Show (Image: Liz Giuffre)
Jon Stewart’s work on The Daily Show has been an amazing international media ambassador for America. It’s been a token, yes, but proof that there is more substance and nuance to the global media powerhouse than Hollywood might otherwise have us believe. While much has been written about Stewart’s appeal to otherwise disgruntled young Americans, audiences tired of a Fox News-led diet of truth massaging and campaigning, his existence has also given audiences across the pond proof that not all Americans toe the party line without question.
Of course, we need to remember that America is large and diverse. But the seemingly ubiquity of its mainstream media means the less shiny voices can be lost in the show of the biz. Voices like Stewart remind non-Americans that not all Americans ‘buy it’. As John Hartley wrote in the collection Television Studies After TV, “the success of ‘satire TV’ is a measure of the extent of popular disaffection with both mainstream politics and mainstream TV” (2009: 28). In an American collection on “Satire TV”, Jonathan Gray and colleagues add, simply “being smart and funny sells and has proven a powerful draw on audience’s attention” (2009: 4).
Hartley and Gray’s logic holds beyond the American market and its context – Stewart’s international success is also a measure of popular disaffection and a craving for entertaining engagement. A decade ago Wired magazine called Jon Stewart’s Daily Show “the most popular TV program on the Internet”, making clear reference to fans who access the show beyond ‘traditional’ means and across international lines. When download speeds were relatively pedestrian, the faithful still forwarded and searched for an alternative to the Fox/CNN lead version of news.
Screenshot of what Australians see if they try to access Daily Show material online.
Access to the viral appeal of The Daily Show is a bit harder beyond the US. Even now it is difficult to access clips featured on the official site for the show, with subscribers often restricted to television access or small YouTube pieces. In Australia The Daily Show has been periodically broadcast on both the public service broadcasters SBS and ABC (budgets permitting), and most consistently supported by pay TV outlet The Comedy Channel. This chopping and changing has been frustrating, but also proved the interest Australians have in Stewart’s address. In 2013 ABC Managing Director Mark Scott reportedly referenced The Daily Show and its offshoot, The Colbert Report, as models to ensure that ‘younger audiences’ were engaged in current affairs. He used them to help argue “We want [the ABC] to be relevant to all Australians, not just older Australians”.
In addition to the straight nightly Daily Show, the show’s producers, Comedy Channel, also create a weekly “Global Edition” compilation for syndication beyond the core market. Serving as something of a ‘best of’, this condensed version is the way much of the UK gets access to the glory of Stewart, as well as other (perhaps unlikely) territories of fans like those in Latin America
Since having announced his retirement plans in February Stewart has still delivered some significant highs and battled some apparently new lows. In May his banter with comedian Kristen Schaal on equal pay for women was a masterclass on how to play just enough with a serious issue.
A month later, he refused to play at all, soberly offering a review of the Charleston shootings. He spoke down the camera directly to Americans, saying “this is us” when talking about the apparent hopelessness of the event- an appeal that was heartbreaking and powerful. It called out the hypocrisy of terrorism, directly appealing to viewers to consider the power of the language used and its impact. Incredible.
When Jon Stewart signed off for his last episode it was the end of a television era. The show continued to make fun of its audience, labelling them last week as “Nerds: They like to have fun… Inside”, but the appeal is much wider than that. If you want to know why Jon Stewart leaving is a big deal outside America, the Australian answer is Charlie Pickering’s The Weekly, The Gruen Transfer (and its offshoots), and The Project. Internationally the copycats are also many.
Beyond network and cable television, snippets like Russell Brand’s straight-to-YouTube series “The Twes” also can be linked back to Stewart – working with the idea of bringing serious topics to audiences who may have otherwise been overlooked or unconnected to ‘traditional’ formats and styles. Brand’s influence on young voters who may otherwise be disengaged with politics surely draws some inspiration from the success of Stewart – even though Brand swaps The Daily Show’s pretence of seriousness (a business suit and desk set) for sermons delivered in the back of cars or in bare chested in bed.
Comedy outlets ‘playing’ with news have of course been around long before Stewart. Print publications like Private Eye, which has been published in the UK since the 1960s, is a clear precursor, and this is just the tip of the international iceberg. It’s true, Stewart is not the first nor will he be the last. But the legacy and impact of satirical publications seems to have a particular resonance with audiences today. Their place was also given a sobering shakeup earlier this year when staff of French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered in January. Satire that challenges the mainstream can be dangerous, there is no doubt. But its value is immeasurable. Enjoy your new zen, Jon.
Dr Liz Giuffre is a lecturer and researcher in Media, Music and Cultural Studies at University of Technology, Sydne, Australia. Her work focuses on music and television in particular, including audience studies, fandom, cultural history and cultural industries in transition.