Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jon Stewart and John Oliver: A Different Take

Reader Advisory: The following piece is not, repeat not meant as a rebuttal to another piece written by a colleague of mine, titled "John Oliver Should Replace Jon Stewart ... Permanently." Okay, it is, sorry. I just couldn't resist.

Seriously, I understand how he and perhaps others could be seduced by Oliver's brand of comedy and vibrant energy. To be honest, I found it a refreshing change of pace. The problem for me isn't Oliver's comedic talent but whether he could sustain that high-octane approach that brought him such rave reviews. If I had to bet, I'd say no. It's one thing to be on top of your game for eight weeks; it's quite another to do it week in week out, year in year out over the course of a long career.

While I think that Oliver is a talent that deserves serious consideration and cultivation, there is no way he should be given the lead on the flagship show of a cable channel that only a few years ago was best known as the place Dave Chappelle hung his hat. The reason that Comedy Central is even acknowledged as a major player on cable TV is because of one man: Jon Stewart. Eight weeks does not a career make. Let's not forget, Stephen Colbert spent four years as Stewart's understudy before finally being given his own show. No matter how funny and talented Oliver is, he is NO Colbert.

And speaking of the man who created his own nation, a curious thing occurred to me while I was watching The Daily Show over the last couple of months. I never realized or fully appreciated how much Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert fed off of each other. The two often resembled a comedy team: one guy playing the yin to the other guy's yang. Stewart's somber, deliberative style was brilliantly offset by the satirical and far-more energetic Colbert. The last two months, I felt I was watching two Colbert Reports: one British, the other American.  A two-headed coin is not only worthless as a negotiable instrument, it's a lousy recipe for long-term success.

And let's not forget the writing. Oliver was the benefactor of some of the finest comedy writing in the business, some of it his own. He may have polished it up a bit, but like the Yankees when Mariano Rivera went down, the bullpen picked up the slack. Oliver hardly invented his own wheel; he merely put his own spin on it. 

I suspect that what's really going on here isn't so much what Oliver brought to the show, but what Stewart apparently wasn't bringing. To be honest, old Jon of late had been, well, old. If he is indeed the Johnny Carson of this generation, then recently he has looked more like the late '80s Johnny Carson than the more dashing late '60s or early '70s Carson.

That's a fair assessment, I feel, and one that I'm quite sure is shared even by those who know him best. The man desperately needed a vacation or a hiatus. And while three months in the Middle East for a Jew probably isn't what one would consider a vacation - especially since he spent most of that time producing a film - insofar as getting away from the day to day grind of The Daily Show, it was probably what the doctor ordered. If I had to guess, he'll be a new man when he returns in September.

But there's also something else sticking in the craw of some of Stewart's detractors. A lot of people have never gotten over his ill-fated and ill-conceived  "March To Restore Sanity" back in 2010. I ripped him a new one over it in a piece I called "The Phony Equivalence."

"Even if you grant the underlying premise that conservative values and progressive values tend to naturally clash and can, at times, get heated, there is a staggering difference between a mere bias and a deliberate twisting and, in some cases, falsification of news stories to suit a political agenda. MSNBC is not the tit for Fox’s tat. You’re allowed to have a point of view and be passionate about it; you’re not allowed to make shit up.

"Watching Fox is like watching a GOP press release in the guise of journalism.  Worse, the network makes no attempt to hide their utter contempt for things like fact-checking.  It plays to an audience who is xenophobic and hopelessly lost in a narrative that bears little resemblance to reality. There is something sinister in the way it portrays itself as “fair and balanced” that is both incorrigible and loathsome all at the same time. The mob-like tactics employed at Fox would make Tony Soprano blush."

Bill Maher took him to task as well on his Real Time program:

"The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out...there are no moderates on the other side. When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama's a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11's an inside job, but I can't name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11's an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama's a Socialist? All of them.

"Keith Olbermann is right when he says he's not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts; the other one is very close to playing with his own poop. And the big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance's sake. That the Left is just as violent and cruel as the Right...there's a difference between a mad man and a madman."

I think Jon Stewart learned his lesson over that rally. His coverage of the 2012 presidential election was spot on and went a long way towards redeeming a reputation that took a huge hit. And his "Bullshit Mountain" debate with perennial pinhead Bill O' Reilly was the stuff of legend. Suffice to say, as far as I'm concerned, all is forgiven.

The man still has it and I, for one, feel he still has a lot more to give to the cause. There's a reason why his show accomplishes more in 30 minutes than all the cable news channels do in 24 hours: it's that good. And Stewart is the primary reason why. He deserves to resume his rightful place on the mantle he single-handedly built. He's earned at least that much.

As for John Oliver: he's young and, like David Letterman before him, he should bide his time. Comedy Central could reward him with his own gig or perhaps Stewart could work him into a weekly routine like he did with Colbert on the famous "This Week in God" segment. If, at some point, Stewart's performance deteriorates to the point where the show is no longer relevant or he decides to pursue a network late-night show of his own and opts out of his contract, a change can always be made.

Nothing is ever etched in stone, and I realize that change is always inevitable. After all, didn't Tom Brady get his big chance when Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury? And then there's the example cited by my colleague of one Lou Gehrig who also got his chance because of an injury.

With all due respect, these are the wrong analogies. If anything, Stewart is Brady. And when Brady went down with an injury in 2007, Matt Cassel stepped in and did a fairly credible job. Wanna guess who the Patriots' starting quarterback was the following season?

Jon Stewart has earned the benefit of every doubt that has crept in over the last few weeks. His job as the head of The Daily Show should be his to lose and I, for one, am rooting for him to put the whole matter to bed once and for all.


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