Jon Stewart is the most influential TV Host in U.S history. Period. With all due respect to pioneers ranging from Walter Cronkite to David Letterman, the staggering level of success so many of its correspondence have gone on to have wildly successful solo careers – John Oliver, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, Steve Carrell, Olivia Munn, and Stephen Colbert just to name few. Only Chuck Lorne can rival Jon Stewart’s impact as a recruiter of talent through the TV Medium.
But unlike Lorne, who recruited masterfully and then let the cast’s unique talents dictate the direction of Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart was the epicenter of The Daily Show. He molded the talent to fit his vision.
There are now a staggering four(!!!) major, culturally relevant late night shows hosted by Stewart proteges – The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
As promised, I’m going to crown an heir to the late night news/comedy show throne, but first, it’s important to establish the signature style Jon Stewart crafted and how it works. Nearly every Daily Show joke can be boiled down to two simple techniques.
The first staple Daily Show joke technique is contrast – the quick cut to the opposite of what’s expected.
You can see how it works very clearly in this extremely simple opening bit about how silly it is that Congressional Republicans feel the need to immediately respond to the State of the Union address with a counter-speech. It can be broken down into four beats. 1) Joni Ernst’s speech 2) Curt Clawson’s speech 3) Rand Paul’s speech 4) Ted Cruz’s speech.
The first beat is the most important, which is why it takes up nearly half of the segment. It sets up the premise (These speeches are pointless, the worst one is going to win the “unnecessary implosion award”) by showing the unnecessary rebuttal speeches of the past. After the premise is clear, it goes into a compilation of clips setting up the expectation that Joni Ernst’s will be fiery and impassioned. Jon expresses excitement for this fiery speech. Then it cuts to Ernst’s speech, which is opposite of the expectation built is a soppy, dewy eyed tale of her humble beginnings.
Then comes beat two. Jon declares that since Ernst is a tea party star and the mainstream Republican’s appointed rebuttal, there’s no need for a second one – cue cut to Curt Clawson’s official rebuttal on behalf of the tea party republican wing, which is even more ridiculous and soppy than the last one. NOW that has to be everyone represented, Jon says, cue Rand Paul. Finally, when there’s absolutely no way anyone else needs to represented, it cuts to Ted Cruz, who has the most ridiculous failure of them all.
As I said before, it’s an incredibly simple five minute bit. What makes it work is that each beat builds on the one before it, finally culminating in Ted Cruz winning the “implodie” which wraps the whole thing together in a satisfying bow.
There are jokes sprinkled in between beats and a nice rebuttal to Rand Paul’s hypocritical complaint of liberal elitism, but these are bonus laughs that enhance but are completely unnecessary for the bit to work. This was the Stewart Daily Show’s bread and butter.
The other main staple to the Daily Show’s joking comes in the form of impersonation. These come in two varieties. You have mannerism mockeries like his turtle-man McConnell impression or southern belle Lindsey Graham, and you have straightforward parody and satire in the style of “Stephen Colbert” the republican pundit.
And that’s how The Daily Show structures it’s jokes. They use primarily these two techniques around a persuasive thesis of whatever political argument Jon is making. Now, as promised, to crown the Stewart heir by seeing how each protege compares.
Samantha Bee’s full frontal focuses primarily on the contrast technique. Take her bit on “the mooch.”
Rather than using the clip to contrast her words, she surprises within her own monologue. Her opening sets up the expectation of Sean Spicer’s firing being like a reality TV show, then surprises by flipping it back on Trump unexpectedly saying he should have been fired. This continues throughout the whole bit. The clips or initial condemnations are the expectation, and her joke is the contrast. She does once flip back to the Daily Show style explaining how the Mooch is going to create a positive work environment – cue the fire everybody clips. She sprinkles in one liners, and that’s the “the mooch is bad at his job” bit.
Trevor Noah resides on the opposite side of the spectrum from Samantha Bee. His Daily Show, while still following the same format as Jon Stewart’s, focuses heavily on impersonation.
I think this is why the two have been able to gather distinct niche audiences. Nearly every clip is followed up with Trevor’s impersonations of Trump or Scaramucchi saying something ridiculous. One liners, of course, are sprinkled in. I think what’s most telling in his personal approach is the heavy emphasis on Scaramucchi’s mannerisms. First, when he makes fun of the hand kiss as he leaves the podium, and then at the very end with the hilarious montage of Scaramucci copying all of Trump’s speaking mannerisms.
Even the skits have changed to focus heavily on impersonation. The crux of this early Noah Daily Show skit. The skit focuses on Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood Jr impersonating satirical exaggerations of “Blue Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” supporters respectively. This is put in the context to argue that the issue has nuance.
Colbert takes the same type of politics focused jokes and rather than using either of the Daily Show techniques, relies heavily on the traditional network TV show style of rapid fired one-liners. His show has more in common with Jimmy Kimmel than it does the Daily Show that launched his career or even the talk show satire Colbert Report that made him a household name.
There’s a brief “mooch” impersonation, but outside of that the meat and potatoes of this bit is one liners – puns and comparison. His intro of “the mooch” of “…and man who’s WAHKIN HERE” is incredible is extremely Lettermanesque. Other than his decision to focus heavily on politics and make liberal political arguments, Colbert is practically indistinguishable from his predecessor.
And the winner is, in case the arbitrary order of which I listed them didn’t tip you off, is John Oliver. He uses both within his “Last Week Tonight” that is often just as much a long form video essay as it is comedy show, but that’s not really why he won. Compare Samantha’s Full Frontal “mooch” piece with one from her Daily Show days.
The two bits are very different, but I want to focus specifically on information, or rather, what information the Daily Show skit doesn’t feel the need to give. The entire skit hinges on the single comparison of the GOP praising Palin’s daughter for choosing to keep the baby and their refusal to use the word “choice” in interviews because of it’s association with pro choice democrats.
At no point does it ever say “look at these republicans not using the word choice.” It never explains its premise. By contrast, every single clip Samantha Bee uses on Full Frontal is followed with a statement at some point saying “this is wrong,” most noticeably toward the end when she says “Thank you, FUCK YOU!”. This is a problem that plagues all three shows, and the main reason why I don’t regularly watch any of them. Stephen feels the need to repeatedly shove “FRONT STAAAB” down the audiences throat. He mentions it no fewer than four times throughout the bit. Trevor’s “mooch” bit does the best at not spoon feeding its talking points, but his “police brutality is nuanced” bit practically uses a sippy cup. It outright shoves the premise in the audience’s face early with “There’s gonna be fuckin nuance isn’t there” “Yeah there’s nuance” to open the introduction to the second interview.
John Oliver avoids this problem in a completely unique way. He tackles issues that are almost exclusively fairly obscure but still incredibly important. Whether it’s Net Neutrality or Coal Mining, these are issues most his audience is uneducated about, and so his style of extensive persuasive argument and heavy expositional information works incredibly well and makes him completely unique. However, sometimes a story becomes so incredibly important he feels the need to address it even though it is already covered by the mainstream talk shows, which brings me to the second thing that made Jon Stewart special that the other protege shows didn’t adopt.
Jon Stewart was able to see through narratives like no one else. His take is essentially “People, including myself initially, don’t take bernie sanders seriously because he is genuine when we’re accustomed to the fabricated and polished presentation of traditional politicians.” He was challenging commonly held narratives and presenting unique takes in Colbert, Bee and Noah haven’t.
I picked three pieces making essentially the same argument on purpose. They all make the identical point that Anthony Scaramuuci is an unqualified clown, and call upon the same talking points – The mooch kisses donald’s ass, the mooch threatened to fire everyone etc.
Comparatively, even when faced with a traditional topic with easy talking points like Trump’s terrifying candidacy, John Oliver injects his own unique take.
Now first of all, John takes the time to genuinely hear the concerns of those who fundamentally disagree with them and address their validity, which you rarely see in any political arguments, but for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward bit. That is, until the twist ending.
After stripping all of the validity of his candidacy, he attacks the most important part, his brand, he attacks his most important asset, his “Trump” brand name. He finds that Trump’s ancestors were actually originally named “Drumpf.” Then he unveils #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain and does something truly magical, he lets his viewers participate in the joke with the Drumpfinator web extension and the Make Donald Drumpf Again hats.
This new element, the interaction with his audience, is something no one, including Stewart, has been able to pull off before. Last Week Tonight is something truly special and unique, adding to the conversation in a way no one else is. He’s pushing the boundaries and using the extended prep time of the weekly format and HBO’s “dragon money” budget to do things we’ve never seen with late night television, and that is what makes John Oliver the worthy successor to Jon Stewart.