Who do you trust? Institutions, promises, ideals? Maybe. But people you know, people you like, people who look you in the eye and tell you what they think? Yes.
That trust is what every single person who’s ever hosted a television show has had to build with his or her audience; has made every single one of the late night institutions we enjoy either the night of or the morning after into an essential part of our routine as media consumers. And that trust is what makes it so hard to say goodbye.
Whether or not you were upset by Jon Stewart announcing his decision to exit “The Daily Show,” you probably had an opinion about it. And that’s because while it might seem like Jon Stewart is just a guy in a suit on your TV or computer, it’s bigger than that.
It’s About Trust
There’s an intimacy to late night programming, no matter who’s hosting, because of all the television that people connect with, it’s perhaps the most free of artifice. The host speaks directly to the camera, reacting to the same events of the day that you’ve heard or read about.
And for many people, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has been essential — a news source as well as a way of processing the comic absurdity of our political climate. “The Daily Show” wasn’t for everyone, but it wasn’t meant to be — it grew to prominence at the exact moment when cable was shattering broadcast’s dominion over our culture, and bringing with it an increased diversity in approach and opinion that has lead us to the present day. (I mean, we’re still waiting for someone who’s not a straight white man to host a show in late night, but there are at least a few options in that score.)
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It didn’t have the rosiest of starts — it took a little time for “The Daily Show” to move from “that late night show hosted by Craig Kilborn” to the speak-truth-to-power powerhouse it became. And that makes a lot of sense — trust isn’t magic. Trust has to be earned.
(By the way, if you’re mad at Stewart for deciding to move on, just remember that his first episode as permanent host was in January 1999. He was doing Clinton blowjob jokes. Stewart has been at this for maybe more years than we really want to remember.)
Think about how TV viewers got their news and comedy jokes from the 1950s to the 1990s — because they got them from different places. You’d watch the local news or one of the national news broacasts like “World News Tonight,” then “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar or Johnny Carson or Jay Leno would come on and you’d laugh at the monologue jokes before falling asleep. Anything someone watches regularly in pajamas, by default, can lead to a more intimate relationship than television’s standard fare.
And perhaps that’s part of what makes Stewart leaving “The Daily Show” feel so dramatic — it comes during a time when it feels like the entirity of late night television is in flux.
Jon Stewart Isn’t The Only One Making Changes
Comedy Central has clearly been tripping over its own feet when it comes to timing. Had it been aware of all that might be on the horizon, this time last year, 2015 might be “The Daily Show With John Oliver,” at the very least. But change in the late night genre isn’t exactly new at this point.
For a genre of television where (prior to the last few years) turnover happened about once a decade, things have been ultra-chaotic of late. Here’s the current landscape: While Jimmy Kimmel on ABC is relatively steady but unexciting, CBS is gestating a whole new lineup, NBC’s current duo of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers is less than a year old, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is a sturdy toddler with strong opinions but a lot of naptimes, and Larry Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” is a newborn babe.
(“Conan” on TBS is the middle child everyone forgets about. “Conan” is Jan Brady.)
And while we wait to hear what Jon Stewart has planned post-“Daily Show,” these other nascent properties inspire a lot of curiosity. For example: One of the fascinating questions we’re currently looking at right now, in 2015, is the question of who the real Stephen Colbert is. Because after almost 10 years of “The Colbert Report,” we might know what he looks like: Lean and bespeckled, with the clever dark eyes of an otter. We might know what he sounds like: A dry, lyrical orator, whose control over the volume of his speech makes the slightest shout.
And yet, we don’t really know the answer to who he is. That’s because the character he played on “The Colbert Report” was less a person and more a joke we went along with ever since the show originally premiered in 2005 — heck, even before 2005, when as a “Daily Show” correspondent he slowly developed a Bill O’Reilly-esque spin on political commentary that let him espouse truth (or, if you will, “truthiness”) from behind the protective curtain of satire.
There are no shortage of moments of “The Colbert Report” that got real in spite of, or because of, its host — we made a list of some of them — and what they have in common is the man behind them, dropping the facade or wrapping himself tighter in it. Both approaches have the same result — we feel like we know him better, because of what he is saying, or because of what he isn’t.
And There’s Craig and James
Back in 2014, Colbert’s exit came within 24 hours of another changeover — Craig Ferguson’s tenure as host of “The Late Late Show,” after 10 years (and some behind-the-scenes malarky that got Ferguson millions after CBS chose Colbert over him for the “Late Show” slot).
Did we ever really know who Ferguson was? After 10 years on television, the answer is yes, absolutely. He was never a scene-stealer or headline-maker, as hosts go, but he made “Late Late Show” indelibly his own, filling the set with “Doctor Who” props and robot companions, talking openly about his decades as a performer as well as a Scotsman with a drinking problem.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Ferguson’s singular approach to the opening monologue, a singular take on a dated and tired format. Rather than read tightly-scripted punchlines off cue cards to a live studio audience, Ferguson would adlib directly to the camera, literally reach out to touch it upon occasion. To Ferguson, the viewer at home was a friend, to whom he was telling a story — reaching out to slap it on the knee whenever a joke particularly struck him as funny.
Ferguson exiting is a sadness, and also means that CBS’s 2015 late night line-up is a combination of two unknown elements — Colbert, about whom we know too much, and James Corden, about whom we know very little.
If you’re a New York theater fan, you’re familiar with James Corden as the Tony-winning star of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” If you’re a Whovian, you remember him fondly as two-time guest star Craig during the Matt Smith era of “Doctor Who.” If you have a Hulu Plus subscription, you (maybe) recognize him from ads for the original series “The Wrong Mans.” If you’re British opera singer/reality show contestant Paul Potts, you remember him as the guy who played you in an independent film no one saw.
(I’ve had months to get used to it, but Corden hosting “The Late Late Show” still makes no sense to me. For an understanding of why, just look at his resume above. Seriously, I like “Doctor Who” quite a bit, but that doesn’t mean I think a Dalek should host a late night series… Actually, wait. That could be amazing. Though the broadcast networks would probably say that a Dalek is ineligible for the job, because a Dalek isn’t a straight white man, it’s a megalomanaical cyborg — then again, Jay Leno did host “The Tonight Show” all those years…)
The point is, Corden comes to the table almost as much a blank slate as The Real Colbert. In a recent round of talk show appearances here in the US, promoting his significant role as The Baker in the Disney adaptation of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” Corden is humble, friendly and charming. Those are qualities you look for in a dinner part host, not a talk show host — though there are signs that Corden is capable of taking things a bit risque.
So, What’s Next?
Here in 2015, we’ve got a bunch of unknown elements and unestablished players filling these valuable roles that we’ve associated, for many years, with hosts we felt like we knew. Men we understood. And that’s why yesterday’s reveal was as affecting as it was.
In announcing his decision to leave “The Daily Show” sometime this year, Stewart was gracious, kind, referring to spending more time with his family but also acknowledging the depth of the impact he’s had on our society. “Whatever reason you were tuning in for — you get in this business with the idea that maybe you have a point of view and something to express. To receive feedback from that is the greatest feeling you can ask for, and I thank you for that,” Stewart said.
He also acknowledged the fact that he was “restless,” something understood by viewers who went along with John Oliver’s summer 2013 hosting stint while Stewart directed his first feature, “Rosewater.” And being frank about his interest in other opportunities is a reflection of the openness and honesty Stewart brought not just to “The Daily Show,” but the entirety of the current Comedy Central late night franchise. A franchise built by Stewart, truly. But one that’s given birth to many diverse voices, in a world that needs them.
It’s impossible to sum up the total of Stewart’s influence on the modern media landscape — hell, even the world as we know it beyond television. I know this, because I am a human being feeling the pressure to do so, to tell you everything Jon Stewart has meant to us, every single last amazing change he has been behind.
There was never going to be a good time for Jon Stewart to leave “The Daily Show.” For most of us, his four-nights-a-week political satire/talk show hybrid was not a daily habit, but we knew he was there, speaking truth to power and making it funny at the same time. He didn’t earn our trust immediately, but he definitely earned it.
So, let’s sum it up this way: Stewart might have said “thank you,” in his announcement. But he’s the one who deserves our thanks.