With the arrival of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver earlier this year, suddenly political satire is big, really big.
Each week, Jon Stewart, the absurdist Stephen Colbert and Oliver go head-to-head to decide the king of comedic cable news.
In recent years, nightly news satire has become the dominant force in late night television, with Comedy Central heroes Stewart and Colbert trouncing the old guard of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, as well as the Jimmies – Kimmel and Fallon.
Whereas late night talk shows once carried the glamour and mystique of Hollywood, their relevance has been diminished by what has been described as a ‘golden age of political comedy’ ushered in by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Carrying on in this tradition is Daily Show alumni John Oliver who recently debuted his own Daily Show-style series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
All three programs have managed to combine an engagement with the political news cycle with remaining true to their brand of ridiculous, whimsical humor.
But who among the three carries the most cache. TV critic Patrick James examines each candidate’s bona fides for the title of undisputed king of political satire.
Birthplace: New York, New York, USA
Education: College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia
Comedy pedigree: Stand up comedian
Since taking over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, Jon Stewart has taken The Daily Show from being another celebrity-driven late night program and transformed it into an international powerhouse. He extensively used video footage to point out the hypocrisy US politicians and the absurdity of newscasters who obsessively follow the ’24 hour news cycle’ – with The Daily Show host often seeming to be the only sane voice in hysterical times.
His effectiveness was such Stewart rose to become one of the most influential newscasters in America. The New York Times even ran an article asking the question: “Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?”
Stewart and The Daily Show have achieved this respect through their fearlessness in covering divisive political issues, with common sense, humour and humanity. The enduring success of The Daily Show is a combination of being attuned to the political zeitgeist while remaining very, very funny.
In recent weeks, Stewart lampooned the intense divisiveness in the American media covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, and started a fake crowd funding website to buy CNN in an effort to thwart Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy Time Warner. All gold.
Birthplace: Washington DC, USA
Education: Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
Comedy pedigree: Writer/ actor
As The Daily Show enjoyed increasing popularity, two star ‘reporters’ emerged from the team of correspondents in the late 1990s – Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert (both for a time even shared a segment entitled “Even Stevphen“). Colbert was notorious for his fearless interviewing technique when out filming segments. When Carell went off to conquer Hollywood, Colbert would be rewarded with his own late night program The Colbert Report.
To mark itself as independent from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report went a different satirical route: taking a bizarre interpretation of the host-driven programming that is a feature on Fox News (namely on The O’Reilly Factor).
On his own show, Colbert plays a cocky, abrasive and self-important talk show host who repeatedly interrupts his guests during interviews. As with the shows he satirises, Colbert stays abreast of ‘special interest’ news stories every night for bloviated discussion, seen last week in his coverage of the ‘celebrity spat’ between Justin Bieber and Orlando Bloom. As Andy Greenwald of Grantland points out, Colbert’s 10 season run since is “astonishing and unprecedented. Has a single joke ever been stretched across a decade?”
Birthplace: Birmingham, UK
Education: Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK
Comedy pedigree: Stand up comedian
Since joining The Daily Show in 2006 as ‘senior British correspondent’ comedian John Oliver steadily rose to be the number one correspondent on The Daily Show team, playing upon the scientific fact that “just about everything is funnier when it’s said in an English accent.”
In 2013 while Stewart was absent for eight weeks, Oliver filled in on hosting duties to great critical acclaim for keeping up Stewart’s “freakishly high standards of satire”. Three months after filling in, HBO announced that it would be giving Oliver his own late night news show: Last Week Tonight, with John Oliver.
The distinguishing feature of Last Week Tonight is that it airs weekly, not nightly, and instead of following the 24 hour news cycle, Oliver chooses one hot button issue every week. The approach appears to have paid off with several videos going viral and exposing the program to an international audience.
So who wins?
In 2015, Colbert will take over hosting duties of The Late Show from David Letterman and will retire his Colbert character for a more ‘straight’ comedic approach. So, the contest now comes down to great friends Stewart and Oliver, both hilarious, both beloved.
While Oliver has scored some important plaudits in the first few months of his new program it’s difficult to foresee what role he will play in the TV landscape in the coming months and years once the novelty of Last Week Tonight wears off and the program attempts to become a staple of the genre. The New Yorker applauded the new show when it first aired, but said it will take some time to see if he can usurp Stewart’s success.
In contrast, Stewart is entrenched in his nightly format and appears to be as essential as ever in the changing US political landscape, described by CBS news anchor Brian Williams as “a necessary branch of Government”.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart remains benchmark for all satirical news programming and casts a long shadow for competitors. Jon Stewart is the undisputed King of TV satire.