There are already plenty of suggestions floating around for what he ought to do next. One timely suggestion that functions as commentary on both events is the idea that Williams and Stewart should switch jobs once Williams’ time in the doghouse is up. Williams, who has trotted out his comedy chops on “30 Rock” might enjoy that, though for Stewart, the NBC anchor’s chair seems more like a potential sentence than an exciting next act. Stewart has been clear in the past that he has no real interest in running for political office: Critiquing something from the outside doesn’t always mean you want in. But “The Daily Show” has prepared him for a job the entertainment industry vitally needs him to do: bringing a sense of the ridiculous back to movies and television about politics.
During his run on “The Daily Show,” Stewart took one hiatus to shoot his directorial debut, a movie called “Rosewater” about the imprisonment of reporter Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) while on assignment in Iran for Newsweek. The film’s best scenes had a fine-grained, specific absurdity to them, whether Bahari was arguing that Newsweek has fallen too far to be exploited as CIA cover or his interrogator is insisting that Anton Chekhov must be a political dissident.
The Iranian regime may make itself ridiculous to outsiders without being aware of how it’s stepping wrong. But there’s plenty that’s laughable about American politics as well. Stewart and his Comedy Central partner Stephen Colbert drew on that rich well-spring of silliness for a decade and a half. Interestingly enough, though, as they did so, fictional television airing elsewhere on the dial was getting increasingly self-serious about politics.
“Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ prime-time soap opera about a wavering president (Tony Goldwyn) and the crisis fixer he loves (Kerry Washington) is based on a series of wild premises, among them that the president could carry out a long-lasting affair with relative impunity, and that the head of a fictional intelligence agency (Joe Morton) could essentially get away with whatever he wants, for forever. “Scandal” isn’t a satire, though, despite how keyed-up it can be. Some of its self-seriousness is earned: The show does touch on real and painful issues, like the lack of accountability for torture and the stifling roles for political wives. But when “Scandal” misses, it can look awfully pretentious.
Even worse is “House of Cards,” Netflix’s adaptation of a British series about a scheming politician, which stars Kevin Spacey, and doesn’t even have the dignity to embrace the power and self-awareness of high camp. Showrunner Beau Willimon has, unfortunately, been anointed as the successor to Aaron Sorkin in the role of the Guy Who Takes Politics More Seriously Than You Because He Cares. Where Sorkin was, for a while, convinced that reason and conviction could make Washington work again, Willimon’s version of faux-sophistication is to insist that absolutely everyone is completely corrupt. It’s a huffy call to withdraw from politics, rather than a rally to participate.
What we’re missing, and what we badly need, is movies with the silly streak that characterized political films in the mid and late 1990s. Make no mistake: “Bulworth,” which starred Warren Beatty as a politician who gets suicidal, discovers hip-hop, and abandons the pieties of his trade, and “My Fellow Americans,” a buddy action comedy about a pair of ex-presidents, are very goofy movies. Ditto for “Wag the Dog,” which involves a staged war with Albania. But even if the solutions they proposed could be naive — there is no all-conquering zinger, and bipartisanship isn’t just a matter of wanting it enough — these movies at least took wicked aim at the sanctimony and corruption of the real world.
Political satire didn’t go away as the new Millenium dawned, of course. But the scale of the silliness was a bit more moderate: Movies couldn’t move fast enough to outflank the actual absurdity of American politics. “Thank You For Smoking” parodied lobbying, but didn’t have to stray far from the truth to do it. “Silver City” exploited liberal resentments of President George W. Bush’s perceived incompetence. “Swing Vote” riffed on Florida’s ballot problems in the 2000 presidential election. Chris Rock anticipated some of the weirder aspects of the Obama era in “Head of State.” And Robin Williams played off the actual desire to see someone like Stewart run for politics in “Man of the Year.”
It strikes me as no mistake that truly absurd political movies faded and television increasingly went in for cynicism as Stewart and then Colbert rose to prominence. What could you do with fiction that would be sillier and sharper than Comedy Central’s eleven o’clock hour? But with “The Colbert Report” gone, and as “Parks and Recreation” goes off the air, we badly need a take on American politics that is as silly as the system deserves. Who better to do that than Jon Stewart, who’s spent a decade gathering material and observing politicians and media figures at close range? Let’s hope that after that well-deserved nap, Stewart gets back behind the camera and aims the lens at absurdities at home, for screens big and small.