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November 13, 2008 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | November 13, 2008 |

As soon as President-Elect Barack Obama’s win was a safe bet, bloggers and pundits began to wonder whether late-night comedy could survive without the fish-in-a-barrel quality of George W. Bush jokes. My main concern has been for a staple in my TV diet these past four years, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” But it’s not that I’m worried Stewart won’t still be funny with a President Obama; he will be. I’m worried he won’t be as relevant.

He’ll still be culturally relevant, but perhaps not as relevant in the sense that he represents something bigger — a movement, a way of thinking, a group of people demanding change. For four years (and many more for others), I’ve sought solace in the roughly 22 minutes broadcast four nights a week. It has been my piece of sanity in an insane world. In an August New York Times interview, Stewart described the sensation:

“In fact, Mr. Stewart regards comedy as a kind of catharsis machine, a therapeutic filter for grappling with upsetting issues. ‘What’s nice to us about the relentlessness of the show,’ he said, ‘is you know you’re going to get that release no matter what, every night, Monday through Thursday. Like pizza, it may not be the best pizza you’ve ever had, but it’s still pizza, man, and you get to have it every night. It’s a wonderful feeling to have this toxin in your body in the morning, that little cup of sadness, and feel by 7 or 7:30 that night, you’ve released it in sweat equity and can move on to the next day.’ ” (“Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” August 15, 2008)

As much as Stewart tries to deflect the grand accolades thrown his way, claiming his is just a cable comedy show, he has in many ways served as a key voice for people who have nearly clawed their eyes out trying to understand the rationale — if there is any to be found — behind Bush’s policies, or behind the platforms of the Religious Right, or of the reason why Fox News continues to exist. His show has indeed been cathartic, part of a daily healing process as a helpful tonic reminding us we aren’t alone in the world and giving us hope that maybe things could change.

Well, we got the change we demanded. So now what do we do? The dynamic is going to change, but will it be for the better?

Stewart has had a ready-made audience of viewers who can’t stand the president. Now, his audience is largely made up of the Marxists who voted for the president and unabashedly love him. Obama’s presidency won’t be perfect, and members of Congress from both parties and other national and world leaders will continue to be asses and need a watchdog. Even former running mates are still around … and around, and around, and around. But on this we must draw the line. Former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is doing her best to remain the butt of late-night hosts’ jokes, and even Stewart was jabbing at her and her endless interviews just last night. Perhaps she’ll drift away, or perhaps she’ll become a senator and will never go away. Either way, using her as a reliable punching bag isn’t an option. Bush was perfect for punching because he won — twice — and considered those wins “mandates” to do whatever the hell he wanted. Winning an office automatically sets one up for scrutiny. Palin didn’t win, so continuing to punch her is like punching a dog — a three-legged, blind, dumb, toothless, hairless dog with an ironic sense of self-confidence. You can’t punch it, and you certainly can’t kill it; you just have to let it find its own way to die. Only fair. Plus, wouldn’t it be more fun to live in a world where she doesn’t exist? Let’s start pretending right now!

Finding fresh material and a way to make fun of Obama is up to Stewart and his writers, and I wish them luck. Stephen Colbert and “The Colbert Report” will be fine. All his character is doing is switching from the majority party to the minority. He loved President Bush, so he’ll hate President Obama. Nice and easy. Stewart isn’t playing a character, though. This summer, when he tried to do a joke at Obama’s expense, “The Daily Show” audience had a mixed reaction, which prompted Stewart to break from his script, turn to them and say “It’s OK to laugh at him.” And just listen to the roars of the audience each time Obama’s win is mentioned. Obama fans held their breaths for so long while hoping for an Obama would win that any manner of detraction against the candidate, even a good-humored on, was met with resistance. It was like admitting he was human after all, and that he might lose, or worse — that he wouldn’t be real.

Maybe the answer to a Stewart fan’s dilemma can be found in one of Obama’s lines about his campaign — that it was always about his supporters, not him. Sure, it’s a line, but it’s one that works. The viewers are the ones who are changing; we’re already approaching the show with a different attitude. Maybe, just maybe, things really will change, and we won’t need the same type of pick-me-up from comedy and satire. Maybe we’ll turn to Stewart and others even more so for entertainment than before. The show will continue to reflect the pulse of a large portion of society, only now, that pulse isn’t from a body on life support. The worries of pundits on whether Stewart will still be funny aren’t actual worries — they’re talking points about pop culture that fill up time. My worries on whether Stewart will still be relevant aren’t actual worries, either, just reflections of my own dumbstruck self now that my preferred candidate with a funny name actually won.

It’s a good thing that Stewart and company won’t be some of the main voices of reason. It’s a good thing that the president will now speak in complete sentences and value crazy things like the Constitution. It’s the start of something new. The tears both Stewart and Colbert shed Election Night represent it all — tears of joy and relief and awe that something major had occurred, and that they weren’t the only ones who believed the country could once again live up to its core ideals.

“The Daily Show” will change, but that’s because the country will change. It already has.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

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