I am not interested in Jimmy Fallon. I couldn’t care less about Letterman. I’m alarmed that Jay Leno is slotted for 10 p.m., but just because he’s eliminating the main berth for NBC dramas, not because he’s hogging the spotlight of poor old Conan, whom I’ve always had a soft spot for but also don’t care about.
These guys—and face it, it’s no coincidence that these are all guys—suck up a startling share of media oxygen, with breathless analyses each year of the next slightly shaggier, colder, warmer, incrementally more cerebral, or otherwise wryer/smuttier/hipper candidate. But though the genre is profitable, artistically the talk show is a dead form, predictable as a procedural, its interchangeable segments mashed into YouTube niblets as soon as they air.
There’s only one exception to that rule, and God bless him, it’s Jon Stewart—the white-guy comic who cracks my cranky indifference every time. Three weeks ago, when he launched an attack on CNBC and Jim Cramer, it was an astonishingly polarizing moment, and for all the praise he got from his fans, I was startled to hear several colleagues of mine hit full-out backlash mode: Stewart had become a bully, they told me, sanctimonious and overreaching. Who did he think he was?
For me, it was a conversion moment. I’d always admired Stewart, but I was bugged by that “little me” deniability, the “just a comedian” escape hatch he’d adopted early on. Now, at last, he had claimed his own authority, without becoming any less funny. When Cramer appeared before him, trying to bond as if the two were buddies from the greenroom, Stewart didn’t knuckle: “Roll 212!,” he cried, elevating video fact-checking into a thrilling moral vaudeville.
In the end, Stewart isn’t really a skinnier Letterman or a Jewisher Conan. Throughout the Bush years, he shared a continuum with the comic “Get Your War On” and The Onion—his genre was catharsis culture, more outraged, more earnest, than ironic/detached. For me, the discomfort of that encounter with Cramer was part of the point; queasiness, rage, aggression—these are legitimate emotions, and paired with Stewart’s firecracker weave of clips, quips, and analysis, they modeled what punditry might look like in the new era.
A week after the CNBC takedown, Clay Shirky published an elegy for the news industry, a sad analysis with a Cracker Jack prize inside: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” It may sound funny, but in this era of reinvention, Stewart stands at that vanguard, with Joshua Micah Marshall, ProPublica, even Wikipedia—odd, aggressive experiments that at their best reignite old values: investigation, facts, and true debate.