An Oral History Of The Golden Age Of 21st Century American Satire
I have never actually missed a TV show. The concept seems silly to me. Sure, I wish certain shows I dig would have kept going in-perpetuity, but usually when I look back, I figure it was probably a good idea it stopped. I think Showtime’s Shameless is going bye-bye after seven seasons. That sucks. It is currently the best show on TV for my money. But, I get it, it’s time. But when The Daily Show lost Jon Stewart—effectively going off the air (for me)—it was a bummer, but, you know, okay…I get it.
But, man, do I miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
And I don’t think it actually hit me until I received a copy of filmmaker Chris Smith’s wonderfully compiled The Daily Show (The Book)—An Oral History in the mail and haven’t been able to put it down. And weirdly, I think when I’m done in a few more pages I’m going to—for all intents and purposes—finally put away this particular icon and try and understand why it was so damn important to me.
For me The Daily Show was, of course, very entertaining. Some might say; right up my alley. Or at least it was playing in the same alley.
In 1999, when Jon Stewart took stewardship of Comedy Central’s then half-hour social-commentary joke-fest, I began getting emails about it from readers of this space, specifically an old radical friend of my Uncle Johnny, who I had never met but I guess started reading my stuff and then tried to get me onto Stewart’s jag. I was never a fan of “fake news” satire—the HBO series Not Necessarily the News or even the early Weekend Updates on SNL. It took me a few years, really, maybe just before 9/11 or so, to begin to catch on to the insurrection that was The Daily Show.
Occasionally I would flick it on and get more than a chuckle, and then, and I’m not sure when or what story they were lampooning or what level of satire they were playing at, it suddenly struck me as damned important work. My guess is I probably became an avid viewer and began setting the DVR sometime before the 2004 presidential campaign and found myself getting at first influenced by the track of the show and then trying like hell not to cover similar ground—as if anyone would notice or care for that matter. But I would. It is a thin alley we were working in. You do not want to bump into anyone for fear you are merely echoing the angst or bile. I have plenty of both already.
And, you see, that’s where Smith’s book really put me on notice this past week. It reminded me how much of the free-thinking public, and okay…college burn-outs and shut-ins and the fringe-class…were satiated by watching The Daily Show make a difference, whether to drive a bill through congress to assist first-responders, or affect the free-expression brigade in Egypt, or merely expose those who needed exposing from the War in Iraq to the banking crisis to the general absolutists that make this country a strange and wonderful mixture of the horrible and fantastic.
Certainly if you are a fan of the show you must read The Daily Show (The Book)—An Oral History, because although I wish it had more “inside baseball stuff”—writing room stories or inner turmoil or other things (and it has it, but not as much I crave from these oral histories)—it is a sincere blast to relive its finest moments and understand how it was achieved and more importantly remember how much it was a major part of the democratic process and how much it began to force politicians and social leaders and writers and scientists and authors and even celebrities hawking whatever to “be real” and give them either a forum to express or a place where they could…not…hide.
And I don’t think necessarily, as has been argued, that the power and scope of The Daily Show would have meant a hill-o-beans in this past presidential election cycle, I do think it would have helped to frame it in its most peculiar terms, something we have striven for here since 1997, two years before Stewart sat in the chair and began to shift the narrative of American comedy, much like the usual suspects, Twain and Bruce and The Simpsons…you know the roll call.
Anyway, before this holiday season gets away from us, I wanted to put a few words together for Smith’s exhaustive work. I rarely get the chance to laud books here. I read so many damn books and some are definitely worth writing about and some…not so much. I do my bi-annual Rock Reads thing for the paper and that seems to suffice. I am not a critic and have no interest in faking it, but I think the readers of this column would get a kick out of The Daily Show (The Book)—An Oral History because it illuminates the aim and effectiveness of true satire and the skewering of our most cherished institutions as an art form I believe is the last vestige of reality (ironically) in a world that is replete with fabricated nonsense passing for righteous outrage and political expediency.
But mostly the book has made me miss the show and miss Stewart and all the great correspondents and writers and that nice exhale at the end of each day when it is 11 and we can laugh at our goofy human experiment and then nod off to sleep.
But at least we have this as a memento.
Bravo, Mr. Smith.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.