In late January, Slate ran an article by Willa Paskin which explored the early returns on Trevor Noah’s time behind the Daily Show desk, and more specifically why, in an election that seems tailored to it, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah isn’t the machine of public moral outrage that it was for the four prior presidential elections under the head of Jon Stewart.
In short, the conclusion it reaches is that Noah’s style, a result of a number of factors including outsider status, learning on the job, and an evolving political commentary arena, tends to merely laugh at the absurdities of the political system rather than laugh with exasperation because it’s the only thing to do other than cry. “On Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, outrages are an occasion for bemused laughter, not righteously funny indignation.”
I tend to agree with the assessment. I don’t watch The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on a daily basis, but I’ve tuned in for a fair amount of it, and I have years of watching both The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report to compare it with. Noah’s done a good job, and plenty of segments are fun enough, but there’s almost always a sense he’s laughing from afar rather than being caught up in the muck with the rest of us.
But that question of moral arbitration over an election has stuck with me. If not The Daily Show, who is our collective moral arbiter? Is there one? Is our lack of one the very thing that’s given rise to the extremity of this election?
Much as I love Jon Stewart, I have to imagine he wouldn’t have been able to singlehandedly reign in Donald Trump or any of the other more expected election absurdity, so let’s dismiss with that last question. And although I haven’t watched Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show or Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, it’s two other Daily Show alums who would seem to be in contention for the crown.
The first is, of course, Stephen Colbert, who now commands a national broadcast audience and has definitely brought a political tilt to The Late Show. But it’s the second I lean towards.
Although John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight airs but once a week, compared to The Daily Show‘s usual four, Oliver has achieved something even the Daily Show/Colbert Report one-two punch only occasionally managed: real action.
Society walks forwards, not backwards. The successor to The Daily Show can’t just do The Daily Show‘s thing all over again. It’s got to push forward.
John Oliver’s recent tirade against Donald Drumpf (Trump) notwithstanding, Oliver doesn’t spend a lot of time wading into specific political contests. His show just isn’t set up that way. So why is he the best candidate for moral arbiter?
Because in an election that has been build furiously upon cults of personality, not just with Trump but with many candidates on both sides, Oliver is the force pulling us back to the issues. Not only that, but he has inspired political action. His lead stories frequently conclude with concrete, simple ways in which regular citizens can display their political will. Twitter hashtags, phone campaigns, online petitions, and more have been weapons in Oliver’s growing war against passive media consumption. Whereas Jon Stewart and The Daily Show would regularly exhort politicians and viewers alike to be sensible, John Oliver and Last Week Tonight have made the arguments clear in such a way as to facilitate public debate and political action.
It’s true that Last Week Tonight creates for itself a bit of a center-left echo chamber, but that charge applies no less to any other political satire that might be similarly labeled “moral arbiter.” And the service it provides – even if you disagree with the conclusions Oliver draws – is invaluable. I am convinced that one of the great failings of this election cycle so far has been in a failure to frame the debates that need to be a part of public discourse, to cut beyond empty headline promises to identifying what, specifically, needs fixing so we can begin to propose solutions.
Last Week Tonight does that, and invites action. Thank God for this raccoon-impression aficionado.