Where Is the Rage? Late Night’s New Outrage Deficit

Election season relies on a news cycle that rises and falls in the course of a day or two. It’s now commonly believed to be 24-7, with reporting covering such crucial topics as “Who has made what gaffe?”, “Whose surrogate said what on CNN?”, “What does the latest round of polling suggest?”, and “What crazy occurrence went down at which Iowa rally?”

Political junkies like me want to process it all at the end of the day by getting a rundown that gives us the condensed wisdom — or more accurately, the condensed lack of wisdom. It’s in that kind of environment that Jon Stewart and later Stephen Colbert made their reputations. I started watching Stewart from a dorm room during the madness of the 2004 election (remember the swift-boaters?), when my campus coterie was roiling with rage over the media’s various double-standards, the cranking up of the rumor machine, the Iraq War, and the way a veteran was made to look like a coward while a coward was made to look like a military leader.

Discovering Stewart was calming and cathartic, and he — along with Stephen Colbert’s blowhard incarnation — ended up being a major part of how my generation digested the Bush years. But I had wearied of their shtick by the time they retired. This was partly due to the complexities of the Obama era, but also partly because I’d so thoroughly embraced their primary points that I didn’t need to be reminded: the political media was particularly full of it, candidates needed to be held accountable, shit was fucked up and bullshit. Therefore it felt sad but mostly anticlimactic to watch both shows come to end.

Interestingly enough, what emerged in their wake — as Colbert moved up to CBS and Stewart ceded his desk to Trevor Noah — was the replacement of an 11pm hour of outrage with an hour of clever entertainment. Willa Paskin wrote a long appraisal of Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, for Slate yesterday, asking “Why are Americans ignoring Trevor Noah?” Paskin suggests that a lighter, less angry show is created around Noah: “If you watch The Daily Show night after night, ” she writes, “you get the sense that the writers have adjusted their tactics for a very different kind of host — a Potemkin Jon Stewart, someone smooth and ingratiating who is reaching for unconverted viewers, instead of an inveterate political satirist preaching to the deeply informed.”Her personal reaction matches this smoother, bland aesthetic: “I have found The Daily Show milquetoast and broad, diverting in the soothing way I associate with the Jimmys of network late night. On Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, outrages are an occasion for bemused laughter, not righteously funny indignation.”

I have not been watching Noah’s Daily Show night after night, I must confess, for many of the reasons Paskin so aptly outlines. Nor have I been watching Colbert’s Late Show (despite my deep love for Colbert’s former show). I enjoyed these new programs at first, was watching routinely when they began. But then election fever arrived on cable — and “new” Colbert and Noah share certain qualities which drew me in initially but now leave me cold, most particularly their abundance of good-natured, smart charm and charisma. They share an ability to find the political absurdities of the day and riff on them to create laughter, but also share a lack of interest or will in going vicious, stoking the kind of laugh-so-you-wont’t cry reaction that used to be a routine part of the 11 to midnight hour on Comedy Central. Colbert and Stewart, whatever their faults, came up with jokes on the regular that became appended to certain political figures or ideas. These new jokes, even Colbert’s, are light as feathers and float away just as easily.

The truth is, in 2016, you can’t really turn on your TV at night with the aim to process your pent-up frustration with election-mania, and  I confess the election heating up has got me searching for something either totally distracting (like War and Peace) or more punchy. I haven’t found satisfying disgust anywhere, except at times on MSNBC or Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show.

Network hosts have even jovially welcomed Donald Trump’s demagoguery without protest. Even MSNBC’s prime time block lacks the guy who made the network seem like an liberal fury-fest equivalent to FOX: Keith Olbermann was a blowhard, but one who knew quite well how to fan the flames of the day’s latest indignation. Al Sharpton is also gone from his slot. Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes are smart pundits, but they are more interested in breaking down the issues than ginning up fury, while HBO’s John Oliver loves to get us outraged, but about more obscure (albeit important) issues. He is lucky enough to not be required to give a crap about the horse race part of Election 2016.

Wilmore alone seems willing to go there now and then, and I’m hoping Samantha Bee does too, for my own sanity, but I’m also not sure that in the long-term, this change won’t end up being positive. You see, Stewart’s outrage was never actually activist as much as observational — as his execrable “rally to restore sanity” and his scornful treatment of Occupy protesters ultimately proved. He was “a pox on both your houses” type more than he was a progressive leader, marshaling selective fury without advocating doing something about the source of that fury, except maybe “being smarter” and wiser to the political con game.

In some ways, I keep thinking that the anger contained in that hour-long late night bloc has shifted and now belongs to the candidates — specifically on the Left to Bernie Sanders, whose army of white, educated youngsters overlaps somewhat with the old Daily Show demographic. You could even argue that aspects of the Stewart voice has been taken up Sanders, who lambastes the media’s fixation on small problems and scandals, and hectors everyone to wake up and stop drinking the conventional kool-aid.
In that sense, the humor and the outrage have split in two. Because as Bernie excoriates money in politics and Trump’s racism, Colbert is shakily schmoozing with celebrities. Noah brings a cosmopolitan, international approach to his slot that’s positive and upbeat and may end up reaping dividends with millennials in the years to come, but the open question is whether the political climate will get so absurd that these new voices — including Willmore and Bee’s more diverse ones — end up getting more and more radical as Stewart himself once did.