During the George W. Bush administration, viewers from across the liberal spectrum looked to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for solace and satire in the darkest political moments. Stewart was a comic Dan Rather on The Daily Show and Colbert was his oddball satirical “evil twin” on The Colbert Report. Culminating in their 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” about halfway into Barack Obama’s first term, Stewart and Colbert were the preferred destination of college kids and NPR moms, aging hippies and hip Park Slope parents alike for half a decade. Liberals of all stripes listened to Stewart and Colbert.
Right now, there is no one to fill their shoes under Donald Trump. Though there are a few political comedy shows (all of them spawned from The Daily Show in one way or another), none of them are serving young left-wingers the same way that Stewart and Colbert once did. No one is rushing home after class to their DVR. People aren’t cathartically watching clips during breaks at their barista and barback jobs. There is a real opportunity for someone to seize on this audience in 2017.
Real Time With Bill Maher
Bill Maher is a pioneer of comedic political discourse on television. From 1993–2002 on Comedy Central and ABC, his groundbreaking show Politically Incorrect brought together celebrities, pundits, and politicians for fascinating conversations that were often as insightful, maddening, and controversial as they were entertaining. His weekly, hour-long HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher, which has run since 2003 and premieres its 15th season on Jan. 20, has continued its host’s monologue, interview, and panel segments, but with guests who are often far more expert in political issues than his PI guests.
Maher can’t be a nightly fixture with a weekly show, but he still did an admirable job of discussing the election in his Friday night time slot. A vocal Bernie Sanders supporter, he pragmatically championed Hillary Clinton once she’d beaten him in the primary, and constantly pointed out that Trump was a real danger and not a joke, and that the Left would need big voter turnout to win. He criticized ad-driven mainstream media for playing softball with Trump, covering every slight movement of his coiffure for ratings, and presuming Clinton would win. And, in one-on-one interviews with pro-Trump conservatives like Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Conway, Maher pressed them on issues and inconsistencies with an admirable amount of respect shown for his friends despite their lunacy.
In addition to not being on screens every weeknight, Maher’s show suffers at times from panels that end up one-sided with a bunch of like-minded liberals, or that find Maher and his left-wing guests bashing a lone conservative panelist in what devolves into shouting matches. In supporting a progressive candidate like Sanders and speaking out for marijuana legalization, environmental activism, and other issues, 60-year-old Maher does have a connection to the invigorated youth, but his monologue jokes aren’t exactly cutting-edge, and he’s also not immune to the generational differences that find older people talking down to younger ones.
So, while Maher still offers something valuable, he’s neither the future nor somebody who can entertain, educate, and energize on a nightly basis.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee has been anointed the heir apparent to Jon Stewart’s throne of political mockery in a number of pieces like this one from New York Magazine, titled “Samantha Bee Will Be the Jon Stewart of Trump Years.” These pieces ignore how much things have changed on the Left since The Daily Show’s prime. The Left is more divided than it was during Stewart’s reign, and Samantha Bee has decided to choose sides rather than adopt Stewart’s sardonic detachment or Colbert’s character-driven satire. Stewart and Colbert gained popularity by casting doubt on everyone around them. During the election, Bee was a Clinton surrogate.
It’s one thing to wear your beliefs your sleeve, but Bee likes to take shots at liberals who don’t share her narrow views. She has bashed Bernie Sanders supporters on numerous occasions.
She also dedicated a long segment to bashing third party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.
This isn’t to say that Sanders and Stein aren’t worthy of mockery. She just isn’t speaking to the majority of Millennials who supported Sanders with her unabashed support of Clinton and her dismissal of the rest of the Left. You always got the sense that Stewart’s mockery was equal opportunity. With Bee, you often feel her finger on the scale.
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah
At least Samantha Bee has a clear point of view. Trevor Noah often seems inconsistent and tone-deaf on many issues dear to the Left. Shortly after the election, Noah criticized anti-Trump protesters. While warning against violent protesting is a fine thing to do, the young host appeared to be in over his head rather than sage. A comment like that from Stewart would have been received as fatherly chastisement. From Noah, it felt to many like a generational betrayal. Given that the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have been so popular among the young Left, it also put him on the wrong side of recent history. Noah’s recent interview with Tomi Lahren also left a bad taste in many young people’s mouths.
Noah defended having the neo-Anne Coulter Facebook conservative on his show as a way to start a dialogue. Many young Leftists, especially black activists, felt that Noah was giving an unwarranted platform to a white supremacist. The interview lacked the clarity and thoughtfulness of many of the Bill O’Reilly vs. Jon Stewart battles from years ago, and sometimes even felt more flirtatious than fiery.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
It’s difficult to find much criticism of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight online. Left-leaning folks of all types love tuning in to see him eviscerate the topic of the day. Oliver’s show isn’t the same type of political talk show as these other programs. While Noah, Bee, Colbert, and Stewart parody the likes of Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and Bill O’Reilly, Oliver’s show is more a parody of 60 Minutes. Though he’ll sometimes address the pressing events of the day in the intro segment of his program, the main thrust of the show generally digs into a well-researched topic that may or may not be in the national headlines.
Though Oliver’s show is a wonderful mix of investigative journalism and comedy, it isn’t the same type of political catharsis that Stewart and Colbert once offered.
A Void on the Left
Whether they’re recovering Bernie Sanders supporters, young feminists who rallied behind Hillary Clinton despite unease with her Wall Street ties, or somewhere on the spectrum of third parties and independents, young progressives of this country aren’t really being served by any of these shows. They certainly aren’t rushing home to watch them the way they were in The Daily Show’s heyday.
So far, podcasts and websites have filled this void, but it is only a matter of time before Comedy Central, IFC, or one of the many streaming channels jump in to fill the void. Leftist comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, black culture podcast The Read, and Politically Re-Active, former TV host W. Kamau Bell’s new project with comedian Hari Kondabolu, are all tapping into this underserved group. It is only a matter of time until they or someone in the same political ballpark gets a shot at TV.
It is unlikely that there will be a unifying voice on political television during the Trump years. It is more likely that there will be a number of voices speaking to different flanks of the opposition with differing perspectives. If someone can appeal to the young Left in 2017, the ratings are there for the taking. Here’s hoping it’s one of the best things on television.