Retro Zeitgeist

Jon Stewart’s fascinating late-career return to The Daily Show is further evidence that linear television is no longer what it once was.

By Ernie Smith

Seeing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for the first time in nearly a decade was a throwback of sorts—and one that occurred basically because both parties needed one another.

Stewart, who faced more false starts during his time away from the show than someone of his popularity and track record honestly deserves, tested the comfort levels of corporate news coverage under the umbrella of Apple TV+, and found that, no, the company would not be willing to let its very famous host talk about real topics. Which meant that, just before an election, he was out of a job. (He should have taken that job at Meet the Press.)

Meanwhile, Comedy Central, the home of The Daily Show, found itself in the unenviable place of having to find a new host on a cable network at a time when cable television as a whole is basically aging out. The search didn’t go well, and seemed to be beset by indecisiveness from the executive set. Some wondered if corporate owner Paramount’s true mission was to replace this iconic part of its television slate with something a little more streaming-friendly—and ditch one of the few pieces of original content Comedy Central still produces.

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Hence, Stewart is making a comeback on a platform that seems weirdly old-hat. (And doing so Rachel Maddow-style, not committing himself to an aggressive schedule of nightly shows.) The results were pretty good, fittingly focused on how old-hat our leadership options are, and he aimed straight down the middle. It was like seeing an old friend.

It’s good for Stewart, and good for Comedy Central. But I think it’s a holding pattern for each as bigger decisions come down the line about the future of this franchise that celebrates its 30th anniversary in just over two years. (Shout-out to A. Whitney Brown.)

Nighttime comedy is in the midst of a long-term sea change, of which The Daily Show is only a small part of. Last year, during the strike, the primary modern hosts in this legendary comedy medium did a podcast together, and it was pretty good, to the point where you wonder if they’d all be better off as podcasters. (Another supporting factor: Perhaps the best still-living late-night host to ever do it is now much more famous as a podcaster.) It’s an old format, and it’s telling that the host that seems to have adapted the best to the modern era, John Oliver, is essentially doing YouTube-style explainers for HBO. At what point does someone in Oliver’s position just eschew the HBO money and just do it directly on YouTube? (Technically, if you look at Adam Conover’s recent career, you could argue it’s already happening as you niche down.)

Is there a future in this format? That was a question I had when I caught a few clips of After Midnight, the U.K.-style panel show hosted by comedian Taylor Tomlinson, the second-most-famous person named Taylor. The show itself (which got a post-Super Bowl push, complete with some big-name competitors) is technically a throwback, a modern extension of the 2010s-era Comedy Central series @midnight, but which really is a game show version of the Best Week Ever format that was hugely popular on VH1 two decades ago. It is essentially a cable show that has been upgraded to network television, which has given it better access to bigger-name panelists as a result. It’s funny, and I’ve enjoyed watching, but it may not necessarily stick around for 20 years. It’s not an event, like a Taylor Tomlinson stand-up special is.

To me, the complications that the late-night format faces long-term speak to the broader challenges of the monoculture. At first, it looked like YouTube and similar services were going to help breathe new life into late-night comedy. After all, some of the most successful early videos on that platform were ripped-off Daily Show and Colbert Report videos. But now all the lessons of that era have bled into the modern internet, so everyone knows how to make those jokes.

Maybe the solution is to let these still-insightful hosts and comedians drop witticisms when they’re good and ready—to admit that the regimented format doesn’t make as much sense in an era when everything can be accessed in a non-linear format. Stewart’s attempts to update the format during his deal with HBO, which sadly didn’t pan out, suggest that he knew that this was necessary to push things forward. But the challenge is that the competition isn’t coming from three or four other networks anymore, but the rest of the internet.

Perhaps the problem isn’t the format, but that the cycle forces these funny people to be funny even when the jokes aren’t there.

Zeitgeisty Links

You’ve heard about exploding batteries in old computers, but have you heard about fire ants eating thermal paste in said computers? It’s apparently a thing!

If you were a fan of ’90s pop, I encourage you to dig through the songs those artists made that didn’t get quite as much notice, because odds are you’re probably missing some great tunes. Case in point: The Cardigans, who were significantly better than “Lovefool” might have suggested. The above track, which has a great title, is from their final album, released in 2005. (Side note: The band’s former guitarist, Peter Svensson, is very active behind the scenes these days, notably cowriting The Weeknd’s 2015 megahit “Can’t Feel My Face.”)

I should not be learning from the obit of the man who invented Pop-Tarts that Kellogg’s changed its corporate name to Kellanova. What a terrible name.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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