My Generation’s Johnny Carson

The Daily ShowLast week was the end of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. I don’t think that I’ve missed an episode in the last six years. It was a good show — very funny and reasonably well informed. And we will see if The Daily Show With Trevor Noah manages to maintain the level of quality. But I don’t suspect that it much matters. I feel the same way about Jon Stewart that my father’s generation felt about Johnny Carson. It isn’t that I thought he was that great, but I liked hanging out with him and seeing his perspective.

On the last show, Stewart spent one segment actually talking about politics. But it was actually what I most dislike about him, Three Different Kinds of Bulls**t. He starts out, “Bullshit is everywhere.” But that’s not really true. Or if it is, then it is a totally pointless observation. If you really think that everyone lies, then it isn’t worth mentioning. It’s like saying, “Food is everywhere.” But I take his point: people pile it on to make unappetizing things seem appetizing. And when we don’t call it out, we allow ourselves to be manipulated. People were indeed more likely to support the “Patriot Act” than the “Security State Liberty Killing Act.”

But somehow, he gets from that to claiming that Dodd-Frank is nonsense because it could have just been, “Banks shouldn’t be able to bet on red.” This is the easiest kind of commentary, which is found all over Fox News. How many times have we heard that Obamacare is bad because it is 33,000 pages? As though complexity is necessarily a bad thing. Why are laws complex? Certainly part of the reason is corruption. But the main reason is simply that laws need to be clear so that they can be applied equally.

Dodd-Frank is not the law that I wanted. But noting that it is 2,300 pages long is not only a specious argument against it, it is also completely without content. No one becomes more informed by being told that bills in Congress are long. What’s more, it seems to give ignorant viewers a pass, “You don’t need to know what is in this bill, because they made it too long.” And The Daily Show was at its worst when it used this kind of contentless carping and easy “centrism” with its implication that if we all just chose to get along all would be well.

Just the same, I would never complain that Dennis Miller’s political comedy lacked substance. All he has to offer are jokes based upon pointed ignorance of what’s really going on in the world — the intent to see everything in the most simple minded way possible. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, was usually far better. When he encountered “bullshit,” he usually dug into it and presented at least a fair amount of the truth that it obscured. And that’s why the media ecosystem will be a lot worse off with him gone. I expect that Trevor Noah is going to be a lot like Larry Wilmore: funny but not terribly interested in digging down into the “bullshit,” except to find a joke or two.

Luckily, we still have John Oliver.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “My Generation’s Johnny Carson

  1. I really enjoyed the parade of correspondents. A lot of talent. I miss Frank DeCaro’s “out at the movies” segments from way back!

    I think the show got better after Stewart decided to retire. It’s like he was able to be a little more openly liberal.

    Carson bit I just learned. There’s a documentary on the Amazing Randi, and in it Randi exposes the hidden radio a faith healer was using to “read minds.” And the segment ran on the Carson show! Odd place for it.

    • I saw Randi debunk the psychic surgeons on Carson. Carson was an old magician, so he was always plugged into that. (He also had great acts like Slydini and Ricky Jay when he was really young — he wasn’t a bit different.) I grew up watching Carson, which still amazes me: where were my parents?!

      I very much liked some of Stewart’s later segments. But the last week was pretty weak. I told a friend of mine, “Stewart left on Thursday, but the writers left on Monday.” But I liked the last show — even that one part I complained about. But the main thing is that I think Stewart was the Carson of our generation. And no one else is going to change that, regardless of how good they are. I’m looking forward to the new show, but I doubt it will be like it was. I doubt I will watch it every day without question.

  2. The King Returns: Johnny Carson will return to late night television, in January, on Antenna TV . At present, this station is available in 102 US media markets.

    • In syndication? The problem is that Carson is topical. I never cared for his skits. Even when I was a kid, I hated it when it was “the best of Carson.” Or are we talking the new Zombie Carson? That would be awesome!

  3. The extreme length of American legislation is a problem far less pronounced in other countries. However, its ubiquity is such that the sheer length of a bill, without context, is not a reasonable criticism in the American legislature. It is not a problem for any particular legislation nor for either party, as far as I can tell. But bills this long discourage public scrutiny and enrich rent-seeking lawyers. If Britain can do it…

    However, with a context… The very long ‘Patriot’ act seemed to pop into existence very quickly – almost as if there were some ‘Deep Government’ that had it ready to go long before the Trade Tower attacks. And indeed, with the given context, this is the most plausible hypothesis. They wanted to, and succeeded in, establishing a system of punishment that unilaterally stripped Americans of their rights. And an important part of their success was achieved by burying their aims in thousands of pages of paper.

    • A big problem in recent years has been the gutting of Congressional staff. This is supposedly for the purpose of cutting costs, but it does the opposite. It allows the business community much greater power in the legislative process. So I think that is the real problem, not the length of laws.

      I think you are right: the Patriot Act was filled with the wish list of every NSA stooge in history. Of course it was sitting around waiting to be used when the opportunity came.

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