In the current American election cycle--one which is almost awe-inspiring in its horrific weirdness--there has come to the forefront one truth that any thinking person from this country or any other must embrace in order to save the nation and possibly the future of humans on Earth.
Since the maestro of fake news left the airwaves last August, a number of substitute anchors have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to fill his spot. All of them are good and some approach the brilliance Stewart achieved virtually every day, four days a week, for more than 16 years. But none of them is filling the void. This election--and events in the world as a whole--are just too frightening for our rising terror to be assuaged by anyone except the master himself.
I'm not talking about the late-night talk shows with a band, a desk, a curtain and the host who makes the occasional topical joke during the monologue segment before asking the latest actor about his new television show. I'm looking for someone who can make an audience (mostly me) laugh uproariously on a reliable basis when acting as the country's steam valve, letting us feel the outrage and the absurdity at the same time. Someone who can leave me after a half hour actually feeling less bombarded by the events themselves.
That's happening now, but not enough. Let's examine the contenders.
In the wake of Stewart's abdication a number of his ex-colleagues have attempted to make their own mark on the state of fake news, and all of them have done a good job. A couple have done remarkably well, in fact. But not well enough.
Easily the best of the bunch at this moment (these things are fluid) is John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, a Daily Show-esque endeavor from the British expat who was a longtime correspondent with Stewart and has not been at all shy about noting that in his work. Oliver has refined the process on his HBO show, delivering far more international stories than Stewart ever attempted and devoting a healthy segment each week to one issue that is examined in depth. It is the best example now on television of a program that can make you laugh helplessly while growing increasingly angry over something you might not have completely understood before. Last Week Tonight is sublime in ways that even Stewart's Daily Show could not be, and that is wonderful. The problem: It airs only once a week, and it takes long hiatuses between seasons. Once the half-hour is over, you have six days and 23.5 hours until you can feel this way again. Staggeringly great, but not enough.
Still, there is The Nightly Show with Stewart's "Senior Black Correspondent" emeritus Larry Wilmore. After a somewhat awkward start in early 2015, Wilmore has been steadily improving to the point that he now is a reliable source of necessary outrage and laughs. His ensemble of Nightly Show contributors includes some real gems in people like Mike Yard and Grace Parra, among others. Some of the sketches still go on too long and the panel in the third segment of each show remains kind of odd, but Wilmore himself makes dents in the lack of Jon Stewart, and does so, thankfully, four times a week, just as often as Stewart used to work. It's still a work in progress but it's one that's showing a lot of promise and is still pretty new. Very encouraging.
Much, much newer is Full Frontal with Daily Show alumna Samantha Bee, who has mostly abandoned her character from that show and sharpened her criticism to be more often straight on rather than constantly ironic. Both work for her, but she's in the first few shows of a new series and still has to work out some kinks. A lot has been made of her being "the only woman in late night," which is true but is not the point of her show, and that's good. While Bee's onstage rants are working, they're coming a little too fast to absorb all of it, and some of the sketches are not working as well. But the field pieces where she went to talk to actual Syrian refugees were informative and wonderful while still being funny. The show has to learn to skewer the politicians it gets in its sights (which it normally does) and not the "civilians" who might not be as involved in the problem (something it does occasionally). It's very promising, but too small a sample to know exactly how things will play out. Definitely worth watching every week.
And that brings us to what is, alas, the least impressive of the bunch so far. While still a good stage for satire and commentary, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is not close to living up to its predecessor yet. And it's unfair to make the comparison, but everybody is doing exactly that. The styles are a study in contrasts: Where Stewart would be incensed, Noah is amused by the crazy Americans. Stewart was a participant, an advocate; he was one of us. Noah is an interested observer from elsewhere who rightfully finds us to be odd and irrational but isn't invested. He'll point out what's crazy, but it doesn't bother him. When Jon Stewart built up a head of steam it was a joyous thing to behold. Trevor Noah unleashes one-liners and many of them are clever, but they don't really build emotionally because he's not emotional about them. He laughs at his own jokes. Again, not bad by any means. The jokes are still funny and Noah is charming, even if he goes too easy on most of his interview subjects, something Stewart learned not to do. It'll be interesting to see how much different this show looks a year from now when the host is more comfortable with the job. My guess: It will be more aimed at people considerably younger than me and cover more international news. That's fine, but it's only a guess. Another guess: Trevor Noah will not be doing this for 16 years.
We need Jon Stewart back because none of these substitutes fills the enormous vacuum he created in leaving. And there is good, if somewhat vague, news: Apparently the man himself is working on short pieces that will be released by HBO, but digitally on various platforms that I, as an old person, will need help finding. There's no public timetable and no word on what the format might be, but at least there will be communication from Planet Jon and hopefully--dare one say it--he might make this election cycle just a tiny bit less terrifying.
If that's possible.
P.S. Opening Day is in 28 days. It can't possibly happen fast enough.