Jon Stewart’s final episode as host of The Daily Show aired this past Thursday, and I spent a bit of my browse time this week reading all of the thinkpieces that heralded and/or accompanied his final appearance. I discovered that he had changed American politics forever, that he hadn’t changed it enough, that he’d variously used his powers for good, for evil, for opiate, and for naught. He was too much of a tool for the White House; he was not enough of a tool for the White House. He was incisive, provocative, palliative, smug, and so on, and so on.
The one thing I noticed, though, was that most of these pieces focused on the effect that Stewart’s version of TDS had either on the political landscape in this country, or on the media coverage of such. I thought I’d take a different tack, and suggest that his retirement (as well as Stephen Colbert’s late last year) leaves a large hole that Larry Wilmore and John Oliver don’t appear to be filling. Whether Trevor Noah will do so remains to be seen. Let me describe this hole in the form of a list:
Paul Farmer. Toni Morrison. Steven Johnson. Jill Lepore. Michael Lewis. William Deresiewicz. Naomi Klein. Randall Munroe. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Steven Wise. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thomas Piketty. Edward O. Wilson. Jane Goodall. Nate Silver. David McCullough. Sarah Vowell. Reza Aslan. Fareed Zakaria. Tavis Smiley. Jon Ronson. Cass Sunstein. Steven Brill. (pulled from the Daily Show Booklist and the Colbert Report Booklist.)
That’s a very partial list of the writers who appeared either in the last six months of Colbert or on The Daily Show this year (and in a couple of cases, both). While most people are praising/blaming Stewart for the impact that he had on politics and media, I haven’t seen anyone yet remark upon the fact that his and Colbert’s shows occupied a pretty unique niche with respect to culture as well. In an era where most talk shows function as a marketing arm for the music, movie, and television industries, Stewart’s crew committed deeply to the written word. And they did so in a way that reached an audience that wasn’t likely to tune in to NPR or subscribe to the NYT or LAT for their Sunday book reviews.
I have no idea whether there was a “Stewart/Colbert bump” in the same way that Oprah’s Book Club provided, although if there was, it was almost certainly a drop in the bucket comparatively. And sure, a 4-5 minute interview couldn’t have provided anything close to the depth of a radio segment or a full, written book review. At the same time, the exposure that they provided to poets, novelists, historians, cultural critics, and scientists was unlike anything else going today. Add all those segments up, and you’d get a pretty good cross-section of what the brightest and most creative thinkers over the past 5 or 10 years were doing.
I hope that someone else steps up to fill that gap, although the fact that few others seem even to recognize it as a gap doesn’t leave me optimistic. For 4 or 5 minutes, a couple of times a week, Colbert and Stewart did what they could to make the country smarter. If you don’t think that’s a real loss, well, that’s where you and I part ways.