My formative political influences seem to retiring on mass at the moment. Andrew Sullivan gave up blogging last week and now Jon Stewart has announced he’s leaving the Daily Show. To give you an idea of how big a deal the Daily Show was for me, I actually used a quote from him to introduce my GDL thesis on whether the British legal system discriminates against Christians:
On one level my fascination with Stewart is even stranger than mine with Sullivan. Stewart’s perspective was arguably even more American. The Daily Show did occasionally send correspondents abroad but that was invariably to countries like Egypt and Iran that were prominent in American political discourse. When Tony Blair appeared as a guest Stewart both made and had jokes made at his expense about his ignorance of British politics.
Yet as a British teenager and undergraduate I couldn’t watch enough of the Daily Show: I not only viewed new episodes but also combed through the back catalogue on the Comedy Central website. And I wasn’t alone in my love. Weak rating might have lead Channel 4 to stop showing the series but what its British fans lacked in numbers we made up for in ardour. Jokes from the show were a common part of how a certain young political obsessive talked about the subject of our obsession.
So why did this (admittedly very narrow subsection) of Brits find a man from New Jersey talking about a politics we were not part of so interesting?
Part of it obviously was that Stewart and the Daily Show team were really good at what they did. The show was not only funny but also informative, and Stewart’s was very convivial company.
It was also the case that we were in denial about not being part of the American debate. We might not know who the German finance minister was or which party was in power in Slovakia but give us a map of a swing state in a US presidential election and we’d draw on the Republican and Democrat leaning precincts with ease. And the Daily Show made that a little more true. Take the recent disgracing of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who took an RGP to his career and credibility by exaggerating the degree of danger he was exposed to while embedded with US troops in Iraq. While much of the British media has had to run pieces explaining who Williams is and why he’s such an important figure in America, Daily Show fans already knew. He was a regular guest on the show and the sheer weirdness of a comedian masquerading as a news anchor while also sort of being one interviewing a news anchor who does a pretty good turn as a comedian.
The show arrived on Channel 4 in 2005 at a point where British politics was dominated by intentionally bland Blairism. In this context, the grotesqueness of the Bush presidency had a certain perverse appeal. Plus it felt like the one genuine controversy of that era, the Iraq War, had been dropped on us from the US. We wanted to see the authors of that catastrophe satirised and as they were in Washington not London that made turning to an American comic a logical choice.
One could also make a case that in a roundabout way Stewart was talking about British politics. To see why compare the Daily Show with John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. Oliver is often intensively parsing social issues or policy questions. That was less Stewart’s (and indeed Colbert’s) focus. Their jokes were primarily about the sorry state of America’s political culture and language. They would dissect or lunge at the mendacious way politicians tended to speak, the media’s tendency to work itself up into a storm about trivialities and to create generate non-stories from feeble evidence and most of all the tendency of just about everyone to apply lower standards to people on their own side than to the other. This is all lamentably recognisable to anyone who follows British politics. So while we were watching Stewart take apart American cable news, we were getting a primer on how to do the same to British tabloids.