Can ‘The Daily Show’ Survive the Barack Obama Presidency?

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Photo: Courtesy of Comedy Central, Getty Images

"How we gonna make this shit funny?" Jon Stewart plaintively asked last night on The Daily Show, in the middle of a series of lukewarm bits about Barack Obama's historic presidential victory. And it's a good question. During Tuesday's Election Night special, Stewart's Daily Show correspondents gathered around to weep for the end of the election. "We've been on the campaign trail for two years," Jason Jones cried. "What do we cover now?" It was a funny bit, but we think the correspondents were asking the wrong question. The end of the election campaign won't doom The Daily Show. The Barack Obama presidency just might.

It's no secret that plenty of satirical outlets — Saturday Night Live, the Onion, late-night talk shows — have had trouble finding good Obama jokes. But we're not forecasting their doom. The Daily Show is unique, though, in its audience and in its comedic approach, and we're very worried that an Obama presidency might send Jon Stewart's show speedily on the road to obsolescence.

Why? First of all, in one eventful day, the prototypical Daily Show viewer has been transformed: Once disaffected and angry at Washington's power structure, he's now delighted and hopeful about the new president and all that he symbolizes. And if you're an Obama fan — eager to give Barack the benefit of the doubt, and proud and excited about the change you've helped bring the nation — do you really want Jon Stewart sitting on the sidelines, taking potshots at your hero?

Beyond the problem of audiences souring on Obama jokes is the question of whether Jon Stewart even wants to make Obama jokes. Of course, The Daily Show has found ways to goof on the Obama campaign, but it's no secret that Stewart and his writing staff lean leftward. And The Daily Show differs from nearly all other popular political satire in that the show's strength is in its writers' outrage and anger at the powers that be. Stewart memorably described the show's writing process to Michiko Kakutani as a bunch of "curmudgeons" writing about the things that upset them the most. If President Obama's administration is the love-in that progressives hope it will be, we think it's awfully unlikely Stewart's heart will be in Obama-bashing. The guy teared up at eleven on Election Night! Not that we didn't, but still.

So let's say that Stewart's half-hearted Obama gags just keep on flopping on The Daily Show. ("Your William Ayers joke bombed," a sage Chris Wallace observed on last night's episode.) With Bush and Cheney heading off into the sunset, and Sarah Palin hopping a charter back to Wasilla, who's left to skewer? Roll call!

•Republicans. Obama's win doesn't mean, of course, that the Republican Party is dead. There will still be plenty of Republican operatives, wing-nut school boards, and convicted-felon senators to belittle. But it's a lot less fun — and brave — to kick the losers than it is to take the winners down a peg. And political satire that only goes half-heartedly after the ruling party sacrifices relevance in order to appease its audience.

•Other Democrats. There's great potential for mischief in the party's control of the House and Senate, and Stewart would be wise to make great hay of Congress's still-likely inability to get anything done.

•The media. Last night's episode included some great potshots at CNN's stupid holograms and NBC's stupid ice rink. Stewart could make even more regular targets of Fox News and other right-leaning outlets, but Stephen Colbert satirizes that world far better than The Daily Show could ever hope to.

•Obama fans. One Daily Show writer suggested as much to the Times on Election Night. "I get worried that all of us who wanted Obama will take themselves too seriously," he said, noting that there was still humor to be had in the Obama crazies who will "sit on the couch" and expect the impossible from their hero: "Hey, Obama, where's my jet pack?" But it seems to us like there's a substantial overlap between America's young Obama acolytes and America's young Daily Show viewers; how often can Stewart and his writers make fun of their studio audience?

•Random celebrities. But then you're The Soup.

That the real highlight of Election Night was Stephen Colbert's begging a cockatoo to slit his throat suggests that the balance of power on the Stewart-Colbert axis might have shifted. We can see a future in which The Colbert Report becomes Comedy Central's late-night star, mixing Dadaist whimsy with legitimate critique of the Obama administration. And, sad to say, in that future, Jon Stewart sits on the sidelines, happy that Barack Obama is the leader we all hoped he would be, but wistfully remembering his words from last night's episode: "Oh, George W. Bush impression, I'll miss you most of all."