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Bully pulpits: sharper tongues, sharper teeth, & an evolved Late Night

Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite wouldn’t care for Jon Stewart. Or perhaps they would. He is, after all, an American icon—a man whose talent and instincts fundamentally changed our view of both comedy and the news. And even now that he’s retired and left the Big Apple for rural New Jersey, his legacy continues to haunt the airwaves.

Walk into any dining hall or library on campus, and you’ll be greeted by a familiar sight: Yalies, leaning forward into their laptops, engrossed in a recent episode of Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, or John Oliver. Between the network and cable channels, we’re delivered new content every night of the week. And, if we miss it, the highlights will have gone viral on YouTube by the next morning.

What you won’t see, though, is much love for the news; talking heads and scrolling text are rare breeds. Some channels are deemed too fettered with bias. Others are drowned out by their own 24 hour coverage. And the older, “Big Three” juggernauts—ABC, NBC, and CBS—rarely offer broadcasts that can be absorbed in quick, 8-minute bursts. So, instead, Yalies (and college students more generally) turn to the satirists.

Perhaps this is merely the “ghost” of Jon Stewart. Many of us came of age during the height of The Daily Show, when a man started each evening by speaking truth to power and ended it with a “moment of zen.” It wasn’t just another news parody. He took the best elements of Carson and Cronkite and fashioned a style all his own. Every playful, throwaway jab at Arby’s hamburgers was matched with an aggressive questioning of Judith Miller or Jim Cramer. He kept his audiences laughing and informed. And now that he’s gone, Americans still clamour for his particular brand of activist humor.

You can see it in the popularity of Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, or in that of former contributors to his program who have gone off to helm shows of their own on TBS and HBO. They attempted to carry on his tradition of journalistic satire, and, over the last few years, they’ve done well. Between The Daily Show, Full Frontal, and Last Week Tonight, Yalies have watched full episodes dedicated to net neutrality, Brexit, capital punishment, rape kit backlogs, the Syrian refugee crisis, televangelism, and even a controversial legal process called civil asset forfeiture.

What’s noteworthy, though, is while Stewart developed a whole new generation of comedians, he didn’t necessarily transform Late Night TV—or, more accurately, he didn’t transform it alone.

Despite the success of The Daily Show and its subsequent spin-offs, the primetime lineup at the “Big Three” has largely stuck to a longtime Cronkite/Carson divide. Hard, substantive newscasts presented by a lone anchor air each night at 6:30 p.m. Five hours later, a light, non-partisan ode to pop culture lulls Americans to sleep.

This was the rule, as recently as five months ago. Back then, the “Jimmys”—Fallon and Kimmel—reigned supreme. Every show saw the pair rubbing elbows with teen heartthrobs, pumping out half a dozen viral videos, and appearing all but invincible in the Nielsen index. That’s not the case anymore.

Old, traditional Late Night has gone political, dragged (in no small part) by the one Daily Show alum on the “Big Three,” Stephen Colbert. Once deemed an eternal bronze medalist, the CBS frontman has just finished ten straight weeks on top of the ratings dogpile thanks to (and notably not in spite of) his barbed satire. The Jimmys, for their part, have been taking notes.

Opening monologues that were once reserved for mild, observational comedy are now dedicated to the headlines out of Washington. Newsmen like Jake Tapper and Charlie Rose have become not uncommon guests on couches that once seated Hollywood starlets. And, most importantly, all of this has been occurring against a backdrop of a fading Cronkite/Carson line.

Jon Stewart may have started the evolution of Late Night, but credit for finishing the job should go someone else: Donald Trump. He’s a one-man goldmine for comedic fodder: bombastic, provocative, and prone to unleashing weapons-grade oddities that open him up to ridicule. These same factors make him a difficult subject for traditional journalists. While reporters and anchors have to concern themselves with objectivity, satirists can speak without a filter.

Now, make no mistake, mocking POTUS isn’t a new phenomenon. George W. Bush and his administration served as the butt of many Late Night jokes. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were each hit with their fair share too. However, there’s been an unmistakable escalation over the last few months. The humor is biting. The satire is aggressive. And, if ratings predict anything, it’s only going to intensify.

No one at Yale would argue that Colbert or Bee or Oliver should stop what they’re doing. But, together, they comprise a tendency that’s troubling. What’s the endgame in an environment where the the cross pollination between entertainment and hard news is all encompassing?

Are Yalies—and, by extension, Americans—degrading the value of our news consumption by electing satirists to be our primary (or only) source of information? Or, quite the contrary, are efforts to make the Washington circuit more palatable a significant, positive good? After all, more people than ever have an interest in the happenings of their government.

Perhaps the jury is still out. One thing is for certain, though: if so many of the headlines we see are selected because they’re inherently grounded in absurdity or comedic value, the conversations we have on campus will be dominated by the same elements. Trump is, ostensibly, a satirist’s dream, and his administration is certainly more unusual than most. What does it say about Yalies, though, if we can talk with significant authority about Ivanka and Nordstroms or the way our President pronounces “China”… but we can’t speak decisively about his plans to change the tax code or how he’s restructuring the EPA?

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