The Zen Before the Storm: Reflections on The Daily Show before and after 9/11.

1td2A longer post reflecting on the entirety of The Daily Show under Jon Stewart’s leadership will be forthcoming closer to the date of his exit, but I did want to write about a very strange experience involving Comedy Central’s Month of Zen, a livestream they are offering of all of Jon Stewart’s episodes starting in 1999. At any given moment, you can join the livestream and begin a trip down memory lane… And while it is a chance to enjoy retro fashion, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell before they were superstars, and the satirical gold that was the 2000 election, for those watching the stream and following along in the #YourMonthOfZen or #MonthOfZen hashtags on Twitter, it evolved over the last three days into something much stranger and downright eerie — the slow march to the inevitable shift in life that was September 11th, 2001.

Starting around early Wednesday, June 1st, the stream arrived in January of 2001, and it hit everyone watching that a collective anxiety had set in. The Daily Show had already grown up during the election cycle, going from some weird mash-up of a “Soup” type show mixed with other late night fodder to something that wanted to be more acerbic, but not knowing what that looked like. With the inauguration of President Bush, the structure was almost there. The tone became smarter, Jon seemed more comfortable behind the desk, and the correspondents became folks that got their own cheers from the audience who was growing to recognize them more and more for their individual personalities.

In the hashtag, there was laughter and nostalgia, and yet suddenly, the things we couldn’t warn anyone about… arrived.

Stewart points to a picture of bin Laden.

Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly sat across from each other for the first time. A few jokes were made about a not so well known figure, Osama bin Laden — at one point, literally on the same newspaper as Jenna Bush, whose wild partying ways were apparently bigger news than the afterthought of a man in the corner who would become a nation’s nightmare. References to a 4.9% unemployment rate on September 10th, a rate that would grow to 7% before Bush left office, was something that today we’d look at as great news. A chilling quote from Bush himself raised eyebrows in the hashtag — the president on vacation teased the journalists that they were always asking him about the Middle East. It seemed the unspoken “did they know what was going to happen” was answered with, “of course not…but… it’s creepy.”

Add in a few interviews with celebrities that are no longer with us, (Heath Ledger, Bernie Mac), and what started as a 2000 episode “Jon Voyage” to the show’s long running host officially became a retrospective in doom. The hashtag watchers began estimating when the first post-9/11 episode would arrive, and I asked myself and others the question … What were we expecting to see? We know how the story ends, but what did watching these episodes again mean to us? It wasn’t as if we all haven’t seen Jon’s heartbreaking but resilient monologue before — it can be watched at any time on, after all.

1td3Then the episode aired, and I think I found what I was looking for, because, it’s impossible to not notice. When so many other things changed for the worst after that day, some very gutsy comedians decided they would change too — but for the braver and better. One day, The Daily Show interviewed nothing but celebrities, and relied on headlines to make jokes, but tinkered with edgy satire, and the next… the format shifted. The Hollywood movie stars were still in the lineup, but now sprinkled in between biological weapons experts and journalists with thoughtful things to say. Jon started his show off more open-ended, and while he was probably reading from a script most of the time, it seems more natural. They discussed topics that some people may have backed away from with a “too soon” hesitancy — was the media gorging itself on tragedy? Could people still critique our leaders without being seen as unpatriotic? In interviews, Jon himself breaks completely out of his jokester persona, and even beyond his sharp witted satire hat — and became downright philosophical in a way we’d only been teased with a few times so far. This is a smart guy, with a show full of potential to be great, and if this isn’t the moment to be that, what is?

These early episodes after the tragedy seem to realize they have the bones for a very effective show — the fake news riffing on the real news, sending correspondents into “action”, and even after at first apologizing for the serious guests, it’s hard to imagine trying to make Jon Stewart go back to just another funny late night guy as the days go by. The stakes are too high, and the audience is so confused and traumatized, as if they’re scared to laugh in general, they’re down for whatever. Even as some critics declared irony dead in the wake of 9/11, Jon Stewart and his team said no thanks, we’ll revive it, keep it alive, because now it’s more needed than ever.

When relaying a story about his stand up gigs on the road, long time contributor Lewis Black was asked by a heckler what he does for his country, and his response seems to be the same as the show’s new attitude — this is it. This is what he does, this is what they do. They make people laugh, make sense of the world through comedy.

“We’re patriots!” Jon excitedly exclaims.

“Patriots in a clown suit,” Lewis quips.

If you tune into the Month of Zen now, and probably for the next few days as we move through the early war years, it’s still a Daily Show and a Jon Stewart trying to find their footing in a brave new world. You’ll still see the horrible fashion, some celebrities that no longer have relevance, and jokes that don’t always land. But, you will also find hard working people who have realized they have a stage unlike any other, and the place they started is not where they have ended up, and not where they are going. A responsibility arrived, and Jon Stewart and The Daily Show decided it was theirs to bear. Two wars, a Patriot Act, economic crisis, political unrest, and a divided country await them. Oh, and Glenn Beck. It will take years for the show to evolve into what we know it as today, a staple of Americana that spawned other brilliant works like The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight.

But for a little while, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart looked at a dark new reality that wanted to leave us confused and in despair, and laughed.

“It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

Also puppies.

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