High off the greatness that was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, I thought I would continue my foray into audiobooks by trying out The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart. With Trevor Noah, I didn’t quite get my fix of learning about the entertainment industry as much I’d hoped. So I figured I’d try out the story of that king of comedy who came before, Jon Stewart, as a way of filling the void.
Ironically, I never watched much of his Daily Show. With all the comedy shows that abounded, when I finally did start getting into it, Steven Colbert was more my style. As a result, I came at The Daily Show from a sort of indifferent perspective. I was enthused to hear about the nitty gritty of making a politics/comedy show, but I didn’t have any personal attachment to the man or show itself. I never watched the major moments depicted in this book. Not that it stopped me.
The Mic Drop
Despite all these caveats and hesitations going in, I’ll say honestly that The Daily Show blew my mind. Again, as with Born a Crime, I “read” this via audiobook. As a novice of the medium, maybe that makes me easily overawed. But, regardless of how I read it, hot damn, did I enjoy this.
The book is presented in a structure that features dozens of individual interviews pieced together in isolation, from comedians on the show to the writers & producers behind the scenes. When I say “isolation”, I refer to how, when talking about someone who was challenging to work with, you get to hear that person’s perspective and then the opinion of dozens of others interviewed separately. The opinions can mesh well together or clash. But every opinion feels honest and often as if it were voiced for the very first time. The end result is a fascinating and intimate look at events that happened at The Daily Show over the years from more points of view than you can shake a stick at.
And what a chronology it is! A big part of the book’s appeal, which didn’t occur to me going in, is that this is as much a history of the past 16+ years as it is an exploration of how shows like this are put together. I was rapt listening to how The Daily Show covered current events over the time period, from riding in John McCain’s campaign bus, “The Straight-Talk Express,” to Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the media pushback, and more. I learned a lot about the effect of some things that flew under my radar at the time, events that affected Jon Stewart and his show more powerfully than I had previously imagined. This includes events such as the Writing Guild Strike of 2007, the Zadroga Act (to provide aid to 9/11 first responders), the Anthony Weiner scandal, and more.
Holding Truth to Power
But perhaps the most interesting thread throughout this book is the perspective that, while jokes and humor were intrinsic to The Daily Show’s success, the intersection of comedy, politics, and truth is what uniquely propelled Jon Stewart and his show forward. His was the first to derive humor from politics & mainstream media by pointing out their hypocrisies and challenging those in power to either face them or be ridiculed for it. In this, Jon Stewart had mixed success. Though viewership blasted through the roof, it did not always translate into lasting change, as much as Stewart pushed for it over the years. But, for a show that was originally intended to be throw-away laughs, they accomplished far more than they ever dreamed, and I applaud them for that.
It should be noted, though, that the attacks on mainstream media were, for me, the most surreal part to read about. For example, right after the 9/11 attacks the mainstream media was in lockstep behind whatever President Bush wanted, and to say otherwise was unpatriotic. Jon Stewart rightly mocked the media for this, and was one of the few outlets to push from the beginning for holding those in power accountable for when the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars went wrong. This was undeniably the right thing to do. I, like him, believe that the job of news networks is to question those in power and push for the truth. The mainstream media failed to do so then, and have often failed to do so since.
But what made me feel strange hearing this is that, at the time of this writing, current President Trump has made it a hobby to dismiss news outlets and regard anything critical of him as “fake news.” As I read about Stewart ridiculing the media over more than a decade, I couldn’t help but wonder about this and how most of the public now believe that the news is utterly worthless. In his own way, did Jon Stewart’s run contribute to this? Though he would probably be horrified to consider it, I think that The Daily Show played at least a minor role here in helping to make the derision of news a mainstream idea. The pendulum swung too far in the other direction, certainly further than Stewart intended. And now people disbelieve the media so thoroughly that the truth is harder to convey and make out than ever before in American history.
That was perhaps a morbid note to write about with regard to a comedy show’s autobiography, but I think it is an important ramification to consider. But let me be clear that this does not mean that the book is therefore awful, however. On the contrary, this is one of the greats, a book that kept my attention from beginning to end, and finished in such a way as to almost bring me to tears. The story of Jon Stewart’s last day on the show alone is worth the price of admission, and convinced me, along with the events of the entire book, how impressive and fun a run that was. The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart was a genuine joy to read, and I’d recommend it without hesitation. Nothing lately has inspired me to write as much as this book, and I hope that hearing about the creative process that went behind the show does the same for you.