Monday, September 28, 2015

Goodbye, Stewart and Colbert, and Thank You

Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart close the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall on Oct. 30, 2010, in Washington, DC.
(From CBSNews)
The day that this goes up, Trevor Noah will be taking over The Daily Show. This is a historic* occasion and there's a lot that's already been written, both about Noah being the first black host of The Daily Show and the second black late night tv host on right now, and about Jon Stewart's legendary run.

I wanted to write about The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and what those shows meant to me.

I graduated high school in the 2006-2007 school year. Dubya was still in office, and I remember most people I knew were terrified that if Bush didn't win reelection, as one person put it, "the Muslims are gonna take over without firing a shot." In fact, I remember Bush's reelection particularly because one of the seniors came into my 10th grade Geometry class to rub Bush's win in our teacher's face. 

I didn't realize she'd been rooting for Kerry. I don't know why learning she supported the Other Side was so strange for me. Surely I understood that not everyone agreed on everything. But, much like encountering a new fruit for the first time, it was strange to actually come across someone that thought differently from (I assumed) everyone else. It changed the way I viewed her from then on--not necessarily in a positive or negative way, just different. I guess it forced me to view her more complexly.

Looking back, politics was one of those things that I wanted no part of, but had been steeping in without realizing it. I had no strong political leanings of any kind. The one time I'd mentioned something even vaguely political in the 6th grade (when Dubya was elected the first time), someone I knew disagreed with me so strongly that I'd decided the entire thing wasn't for me, especially if it generated that much anger. So it was a strange decision to start watching a political comedy show.

I think I started watching The Daily Show because of my senior AP Government class. I loved the show right away. Jon Stewart's irreverent take on the news was mind blowing stuff to a relatively sheltered Arkansas white boy. Stewart disagreed with basically everything that I'd been raised to believe at that point. The culture of my entire town was so homogenous that seeing him openly mocking these ideals--frequently pointing out their hypocrisy--was mind blowing.

All my life, I'd been taught the news was just facts. I'd been taught that news media was a "reliable" source for research. Yet here was Jon Stewart demonstrating that the news could be just as biased as any other old asshole on the street.

I watched some Colbert out of curiosity, but I didn't really like it. It didn't click with me the way Stewart did. I much preferred Stewart's cheeky take downs to Colbert's satire.

At the same time that I started watching The Daily Show, we were learning about the political spectrum in my AP Government class. To illustrate this, my teacher drew a line across the board. At the far left end, she put our AP Literature teacher. At the far right end, she put her own name. In the middle left, Bill Clinton. In the middle right, Dubya. She numbered the line at various points, then passed out a test that would tell us where we fell on the line. It was a short test asking us to rate our agreement with statements on a scale of 1(completely disagree) to 5 (completely agree).

My number put me at the far left of the line, almost matching our AP Literature teacher's score. Since I had no real strong opinion on any issues, this surprised the hell out of me. If the test was to be believed, I thought about things much differently than any of my friends or family members. Even my best friend disagreed with me on a lot of this stuff, falling on the right side of the line.

My government teacher, for some reason that I still don't understand to this day, started letting me bring recorded episodes of The Daily Show to class. We'd watch and discuss the episode. It was during one of these discussions that she mentioned that Colbert was a pretty funny parody of Bill O'Reilly. Curious, I went home and watched an episode of The O'Reilly Factor, and that's when it all clicked, and I finally understood Colbert.

I remember when Colbert and O'Reilly appeared on each other's shows on the same day. My government teacher told me to record both episodes and bring them to class. We watched the Colbert part of O'Reilly's show, and then Colbert's episode and discussed bias and what we thought about what each had to say.

College, as should be a surprise to no one, was an eye-opening experience politically. Despite loving The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I still wasn't very political. I felt a little guilty about it, but I basically thought "politics" was too big. There was too much history. It was too complicated. It terrified me. And it sounded so depressing. Why would I want to think about this stuff?

I watched The Daily Show's live show coverage of the election results over at my friend Brooke's apartment. Although I was elated by the results, I hadn't voted for Barack Obama. I hadn't voted at all. I thought that I didn't know enough about either candidate to make an informed decision. I'd been leaning Obama, and had even gotten into arguments with family members about him, but disagreeing so adamantly and completely with my family was scary. I was worried I'd somehow missed some important information. Why else would I disagree with everyone back home so much? Maybe I was just scared to suddenly have my own opinions.

Both shows continued to help me make up my own mind during Obama's presidency. I started to realize that not only was the news biased, but it would often out and out lie. I realized that part of the reason misinformation was so easy to spread was because people weren't informed in the first place. I started to realize that manipulation and lies could have real and lasting results on policies. Remember the Obamacare death panel lies? Remember that people actually believed that?

I learned about media, about bias, and about how to argue--both shows had evidence-based argument deconstruction down to an art form. But I'm most grateful that they taught me that failure comes from both sides. Stewart and Colbert just as frequently pointed out when the left was false and hypocritical, when they fucked up. I'm grateful that twenty-year-old me had the reminder that both sides could and did fuck up and deserved to be called out.

It's probably a little silly that I'm going on about these two shows at such length. But I strongly believe that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert helped many people from my generation understand our place in our current political environment. Post-9/11, the way the media and the two political parties engaged with the general public changed. Colbert and Stewart were frequently a lighthouse in a fog of misinformation and manipulation. In many ways, they taught us how to think. They taught us to question everything--even them.

While Stewart seems to have moved on, I'm very glad that Colbert is still around. And honestly, his new show is even better than his old. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Colbert without his persona, but Colbert is able to engage in an even deeper and richer way than before, and he's bringing many of the values I hold so dear to a new and broader audience. Possibly to the next generation.

I'll be checking out Trevor Noah's new show on Tuesday when it goes up on Hulu. I'll be nervous. I'll be anxious. And while I know he won't replace Jon Stewart, I hope that Noah will continue The Daily Show's legacy of cutting through the noise and asking you to take a moment to think and question what you've been told.


*A historic, that's right, I wrote that--"an" has no purpose before "historic" if you pronounce the "h" like a normal human being. If you're Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd, you get a pass, but c'mon. The people saying "an" and then pronouncing the "h" is just silly. The "n" in "an" is to provide a consonant to bounce from in speech instead of trying to pronounce two vowels in a row, such as "a apple" which would be hard to say. Fight me on this! I dare you!