Jon Stewart hosting the Daily Show in 2004, during the show's most iconic period as an anti-establishment voice. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why Britain needs its own Jon Stewart

In 2010, Helen Lewis looked back over a decade of The Daily Show and wondered - as Channel 4 decided to cut back its syndication - why Brits couldn't be so lucky as to have as good a satirist on TV every day as Jon Stewart.

In the snow-fixated run-up to Christmas, Channel 4 buried some terrible news: instead of showing all four episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart throughout the week on its digital channel, in future it will broadcast just one weekly round-up.

This US import is evidently too expensive and its audience too niche, even for More 4. It's a crying shame. For anyone who doesn't know what the fuss is about -- and believe me, in the US The Daily Show causes plenty of fuss -- let me tell you why this is possibly the best programme on television. But first, a quick history lesson.

In 1996, a late-night satirical programme called The Daily Show started on a US cable channel called Comedy Central. Its host was Craig Kilborn and the focus was firmly on celebrities and pop culture. But when Kilborn left two years later and a spiky stand-up comedian called Jon Stewart took the reins, everything changed. From the start, Stewart was more interested in the national media and politics than the state of Britney's head or Lindsay Lohan's underwear.

I started watching in about 2002, by which time the show had already experienced the two events that were to change it for ever -- the election of George W Bush as US president in 2000 and al-Qaeda's attack on New York on 11 September 2001.

The latter was superbly handled by the show; back on air on 20 September, Stewart delivered a monologue on the resilience of New York and the importance of comedy during times of tragedy, which managed to be touching rather than mawkish. (You can see it here.)

In the months that followed, the right-wing press howled about "anti-Americanism" every time anyone disagreed with President Bush. (For all its shortcomings, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip evokes this period wonderfully).While the Republicans exulted in their monopoly on patriotism, the Democrats seemed even more supine than usual. But cometh the hour, cometh the satirist and Jon Stewart was in his element. Cheap but funny attacks on Bush's mangling of the English language gave way to biting criticism of the invasion of Iraq and the contempt with which the White House treated anyone who dared to question it.

The war was promptly christened "Mess O'Potamia" and senior Bush officials were skewered for their contorted explanations of why it was necessary. My particular favourite has to be Condoleezza Rice's claim that no one in the White House had given any thought to what might happen if al-Qaeda attacked America because the possibility seemed so remote. The show then gleefully played a clip from her testimony to the 9/11 commission, where she confessed to receiving a briefing in August 2001 called ""Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States." (Now try to imagine a British show using a Commons committee hearing to such devastating effect.)

By the time the 2004 presidential elections rolled around, The Daily Show had become an established voice of opposition to President Bush. But it didn't spare his Democratic rival John Kerry, who was ruthlessly mocked for his boring speeches and let-them-eat-cake-isms. When YouTube launched in 2006, some of the first videos to attract millions of views were of Stewart - including his 2004 his appearance on CNN's debate show Crossfire.

He told the hosts that the media's focus on soundbites, mud-slinging and softball questions were "not so much bad . . . as hurting America" and they personally were "partisan hacks". The right-winger Tucker Carlson -- who'd already slightly undermined his cause by wearing an unspeakably hideous bow tie -- tried to rally by criticising Stewart for not treating his responsibilities as a journalist seriously enough. "If your idea of confronting me is that I don't ask hard enough news questions, we're in bad shape, fellas," shot back Stewart. "You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls!" (Incidentally, Carlson left the show three months later. Perhaps he never got over the bit where Stewart said, "You're 35 -- and you're still wearing a bow tie?")

In 2006, one of The Daily Show's alumni, Stephen Colbert -- who'd been given his own spin-off show, The Colbert Report, the year before -- did something even ballsier.

He stood next to President Bush and called him ignorant and incompetent. The occasion was the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which is usually a mildly risqué festival of back-slapping self-congratulation, in which the president makes a few jibes about his public image and the press corps get to pretend to be mean to him.

Colbert, however, went for the jugular. "I believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs least," he said near the start of the ten-minute speech. "And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq." He added that it didn't matter that the president had a 32 per cent approval rating, because polls only reflected what people were thinking in reality -- "and reality has a well-known liberal bias". (Until last year, you could see The Colbert Report on the FX Channel in Britain but that's also gone the way of the dodo.)

If you haven't watched the speech, I recommend you do -- as I'm writing this, I'm aware that you just don't get quite how near the knuckle all this stuff is, unless you're constantly reminded that Colbert is standing just a few feet away from Bush, who tries to chuckle while looking as if he wants to whisper "Kill hiiiim" to his security detail. Speaking truth to power is hard; speaking truth to power when it's sitting next to you at a dinner party and when everyone would rather you were chummy and collusive is quite another thing.

Predictably, the incident caused a media firestorm -- but it also confirmed that Comedy Central's fake news shows had to be taken seriously. The 2008 election proved this -- a young stripling called Senator Barack Obama stopped by, as did John McCain (whose journey from loveable, principled "maverick" to Palin-choosing party puppet can be seen in his many Daily Show interviews over the years).

Afterwards, with President Bush packed off on Marine One to "write" his memoirs, America's liberals held their breath. Who would give The Daily Show its punchlines now? For a few months, the programme wobbled. In contrast to Bush administration officials, Obama's cabinet seemed more than happy to come and explain their policies and the new mood of grown-up debate, which Stewart had long argued for, seemed in danger of making him redundant.

But then, like some magnificent whale breaking through the shallow seas of TV punditry, Fox News heaved into view. While Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity had been regular targets of the show, the inexorable -- and, to British eyes, largely inexplicable -- rise of Glenn Beck goaded Stewart into battle once more.

It's hard to explain what Glenn Beck does and how mesmerising his theatrical style is, so perhaps it's best if you just watch this iconic clip of him sobbing like -- in his own words -- a "frikking televangelist" as he explains his fears for America. It's here -- go on, I'll wait.

Disturbing, isn't it? While most rational people would conclude that Beck needs a strong cup of tea and a quiet sit-down in a darkened room rather than a daily television and radio show on which to air his views, the more paranoid elements of America clasped him to their bosom (right next to their rifles and signs comparing Obama with Hitler). He became a focus for everyone who didn't think that Obama was "American" enough to be president -- including the so-called "birthers" who cooked up an elaborate conspiracy theory about Obama going back in time to fake his own birth certificate in Hawaii.

Beck genuinely seemed to believe that Obama was some sort of communist, intent on depriving poor Americans of their God-given right to die because they couldn't afford adequate health insurance. His rhetoric helped, in a large part, to create the climate in which the Tea Party, and its darling Sarah Palin, has flourished. And so he made a worthy adversary for Stewart, whose relentless mockery of him culminated in this magnificent parody of both Beck's style and content. It was so successful that mainstream news shows covered it.

Last year, the importance of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in American national debate was confirmed when the two held a "Rally for Sanity" in the Washington mall, which was intended as a counterweight to the Tea Party's earlier "Restoring Honor" event. More than 250,000 people turned up, brandishing signs that said things like "I disagree with you -- but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler", "Use your inside voice" and "I hate taxes but I like roads, firemen, some cops, traffic lights (except red ones) . . . so I pay them anyway"). Over Christmas, Jon Stewart scored another political victory, stoking a backlash against the Republican Party's pledge to hold up a bill to help 9/11 rescue workers until it had secured continued tax cuts for the rich. The Republicans caved in.

In just over ten years, then, The Daily Show has gone from yappy terrier to lavishly toothed watchdog, snapping at the heels of the rich and powerful. And Britain needs its example more than ever -- particularly as even the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, thinks that Ofcom should relax rules on impartiality in television news broadcasting, paving the way for a British version of Fox News.

There are other reasons to love it, too -- not least the diversity of the voices it airs. Critics accuse it of being liberal, anti-war and secular but its correspondents have included everyone from a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel (Rob Riggle) and an Indian-born Muslim (Aasif Mandvi) to a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school (Stephen Colbert). That's not to mention a mother of three (Samantha Bee, wife of fellow correspondent Jason Jones), two African Americans (Wyatt Cenac and Larry Wilmore), a British guy (John Oliver) and two people who were in The Hangover (Ed Helms and Rob Riggle). What's more, when Republicans and right-wingers have the cojones to appear, they're welcome -- both Bill O'Reilly and the former presidential candidate-turned-Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee have been recent guests.

Of course, Channel 4's argument for cutting back on The Daily Show must be that much of its subject matter is irrelevant to UK audiences -- it's true that Senate filibusters and spats at MSNBC or CNN can be pretty impenetrable -- and that the broadcaster would be better off developing original programming. (10 O'Clock Live, a satirical show starring David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker, which is currently filming a series of non-broadcast pilots, is their greatest hope in this regard.)

Still, I will mourn the loss of my nightly Daily Show fix. We law-abiding folks at the New Statesman would never condone illegally downloading it or using a proxy server to view it on the Comedy Central website, so the only way to watch it will be through iTunes. (You'll have to pay £9.99 for a fortnights's worth of episodes, though, so think about taking out a bank loan.) Let's all cross our fingers and hope that the BBC picks it up -- and The Colbert Report, too, while we're making new year wishes.

The best of The Daily Show (well, the bits that are available on YouTube, anyway):

1. Jon Stewart's Glenn Beck parody

Never have a blackboard, a crude drawing of a swastika and an unruly pair of glasses been more effective tools for satire.

2. Stewart interviews President Obama

Watched by 3.6 million people, Stewart grills the president on where he's going wrong and accidentally calls him "dude".

3. Colbert and the banana

Stephen Colbert reports on what Prince Charles may, or may not, have done with a male servant. For once, Colbert's deadpan delivery fails him and he nearly cracks up.

4. Even Stephven

Before Steve Carrell's move to Hollywood to alternate between making sweet indie comedies and studio stinkers, he was paired with Stephen Colbert in a segment called Even Stephven, in which they chewed over the issues of the day. Here's a vintage outing.

5. President Bush v Governor Bush

One of the things The Daily Show does best -- cleverly editing video clips together to make a point. Here, President Bush debates with the only man who can stand up to him -- his younger self.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.