The End of an Era

What comes after the laughter?

After having the House and Senate wrested from its clutching hands in 2006, on Tuesday night, the GOP was forced to watch its control of the executive branch evaporate as well, as a triumphant Barack Obama stood before thousands of jubilant supporters in Grant Park and proclaimed that change had come.

As we’ve seen, change means different things to different people. But it might augur something particularly unfortunate for Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, the anchors of Comedy Central’s two immensely popular fake news shows, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

For eight years, the fortunes of Stewart and Colbert have been intimately linked to the Republican leaders they lampoon. At the start of Bush’s presidency, Jon Stewart was the little-known host of an obscure TV show that promised reporting on “all the day’s events—at least the ones we’re let into.” Spurred largely by his coverage of the 2000 and 2004 elections, Stewart has since become an icon of American popular culture—a 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that Stewart is the fourth most trusted journalist in America. Meanwhile, his show has garnered critical and popular accolades, including six consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Musical, Variety, or Comedy Series.

Stewart’s meteoric rise has been matched by that of his former employee, Steven Colbert, who launched “The Colbert Report” in 2005, and has come to rival his old boss in acclaim and popularity.

At least some of this success comes from the serendipitous influence of America’s bumbling leadership. Both Colbert and Stewart rely on the ridiculous moments in actual news for their satire, and for eight years, the Bush Administration has been running a veritable ridiculousness factory.

A sitcom director couldn’t have cast a better set of characters: There was Bush, the prodigal-son-turned-born-again with a characteristic smirk and a penchant for butchering the English language; Cheney, with all the charm of a superhero villain and the mannerisms to match; and the entire gang—from Rumsfeld to Ashcroft, Rove to Gonzalez—each with his own set of laughable, unlovable idiosyncrasies.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, does not lend himself to parody. The good-looking golden boy who inspires with his oratory and swishes threes on the basketball court can be pretty difficult to mock.

And even if Obama somehow morphs from untouchable messiah into comic goldmine, something will still be missing. Colbert and Stewart are fundamentally opposition figures—Stewart once described his job as “throwing spitballs” from the back of the room. This outsider status is a key element of their identity. For years, I have watched their shows because, in a country seemingly dominated by conservative ideologues, they offered an oasis where Right was still wrong, and laughter could lighten the burden of the very unfunny things happening to America.

Now, with the Democrats’ ascension, the troublemakers have become the teacher’s pets. How can the joke still be funny if the establishment is in on it too?

Stewart and Colbert’s predicament is emblematic of a much larger problem facing the American Left. For years, we have been content to throw spitballs—now we have to teach the class.

Stewart and Colbert’s critique, while incisive, is not programmatic. They tear apart the foibles of politicians but offer no clear alternative themselves. This “Daily Effect” has even been empirically verified, as two East Carolina University researchers found that viewers of “The Daily Show” expressed more cynical views of presidential candidates, the media, and the entire electoral process. This cynicism may be healthy, but it can only carry you so far. Jokes are far easier to concoct than solutions.

I sincerely hope that Stewart and Colbert can find a way to successfully navigate the transition from Bush to Obama, but more importantly, I hope that the Democratic Party can transform itself from opposition into leadership. Since winning control of Congress, Democrats have not handled their newfound power as gracefully as possible—though admittedly there have been considerable obstacles posed by a hostile executive branch. Now, with the Senate, the House, and the Presidency all in Democratic hands, there are no more excuses. The laughs are over. It’s time to get serious.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.