Jon Stewart’s Comedy Tree
In sports there are many references to coaching trees. Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, and Phil Jackson are examples of successful head coaches who mentored assistant coaches who then went on to be successful themselves. Comedy has its own version of the coaching tree; let’s call it the comedy tree. Exhibit A is Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows that trained and launched such comedy greats as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. One modern comedy tree belongs to Jon Stewart.
Comedy, like all art, is somewhat subjective. If you like a movie, play, book, or painting you consider it good art. Thus, if something makes them laugh, it’s good comedy to many people. That simplistic view is easily challenged when considering food. I like corn dogs, for example. But my fondness for them does not make them good food. Likewise, I do not like the movie, Citizen Kane, but I can appreciate why it is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. So it is with comedy. When I was young, I thought the Three Stooges were hilarious. Now I find them incredibly boring even though I can still appreciate their contributions to the art form.
I must confess that I love Jon Stewart’s work. The Daily Show was required viewing for me. In fact it was my only required TV viewing. I am not alone in this. He had an incredibly loyal audience and his retirement sparked a smaller version of the national angst that accompanied Johnny Carson’s. Just like with Jay Leno, there is a nation-wide conversation about the quality Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah. I think, however, that such a critical dialogue should take place with more context. As good as Stewart was, The Daily Show launched a significant number of important careers because it was an ensemble production.
Steve Carrell, Samantha Bee, Rob Corddry, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Stephen Colbert are some of the more prominent graduates of the Stewart stable of comics. Each has their own strengths that either mirrored or complemented Stewart’s unique combination of sarcasm, silliness, and substance. Great comedy not only makes us laugh, but it also makes us think about things we may not have considered before. Carrell and Corddry mirror Stewart’s everyman persona that made him so relatable. Oliver, Bee and Wilmore continue to provide us with the sarcastic social commentary that made Stewart part of the nation’s conscience. Both of Colbert’s shows have been rife with silliness.
There is lot of argument about whose show is better. Personally, I think Samantha Bee is the closest to having the right balance between funny and relevant. She makes me laugh even as she devastates her targets. The polished nature of Full Frontal displays her long tenure with Stewart, but I don’t see how she can sustain her success without an ensemble to play off of. Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, and Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, on the other hand, are both okay shows. Oliver’s comedy relies almost entirely on irony and seldom deviates from the headlines and thus gets tiresome. However, I do admire his in-depth look at subjects and his social media wars with FIFA officials and the leader of Azerbaijan open new venues for potential comedy. Wilmore’s show features an opening monologue that is usually good, but his supporting cast seems weak and unimaginative. The roundtable discussions are boring and the guests usually have limited fan bases and bring little in the way of funny. Chelsea Handler used the same format with much greater success on Chelsea Lately. All of these shows are funny or enlightening to some degree. But, more importantly, none of these shows is “must see TV” as far as I am concerned.
Which leaves The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (still can’t get the announcer saying “Jon Stewart” out of my head.) Here I am a little more optimistic. Noah is smart, funny, and has a unique perspective on our news cycles. He is a long way from being good enough that I feel sad about missing his show, but I see signs that it could happen. Noah is willing to experiment such as when he does the monologue standing up instead of always from his desk. And some of the new cast members he has brought in show promise. Roy Wood Jr., for example, is an underrated comic actor and Desi Lydic shows some of the same comedic chops as Samantha Bee and Kristin Schaal. He kept Jessica Williams, who is a star in the making, and Jordan Klepper, a serviceable Conan O’Brian doppelganger, from Stewart’s cast. But Hasan Minhaj and Ronny Chieng in particular, lack believable delivery and on-screen presence.
Noah is still finding his way, which is understandable. Both Stewart and his predecessor, Craig Kilborn, took time to get comfortable and maximize their talents within the format of the show. Noah does not have the everyman persona that both Stewart and Carson had, and at times he seems to fall into a lecture mode. But he seems to genuinely enjoy himself as he skewers the rich and powerful, and that enthusiasm will go a long way toward continuing the show’s success. He still needs to work on his interviewing skills, and like Wilmore, he needs better guests. But his interview with Katie Couric about her gun documentary twinned with TDS’exposure of the NRA’s hypocrisy gives me confidence that Jon Stewart did well in choosing Trevor Noah to take over the show. While I don’t worry about watching TDS every night, I find it difficult to go a whole week without seeing at least one episode. And for now, that is enough.