David Letterman received the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence at The Comedy Awards the other night. Deserved? Probably.
While commenting on the annals of comedy is a bit like arguing about the most beautiful woman in the world, I am nevertheless intrigued by the evolution of the comic arts. Perhaps it's the human need for categorizing common lore or the pervasive nostalgic feelings that help make life meaningful, but some part of me sees a hierarchy in any discipline. Who was the best? Who had the most influence? Who was the most successful? These are the questions we ask about sports stars, movie stars, writers, scientists, CEOs and even chefs. We probably like to make these lists because we all hope to be at the top of one someday.
In the world of entertainment, Johnny Carson was the undisputed paragon of late night comedy. The Tonight Show ran for 30 years and started the careers of some of our nation's most beloved comedians: Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart and, of course, David Letterman. Much has been written and spoken about Carson's influence; certainly The Comedy Awards' presentation of the eponymous award fawned over his memory.
Who can follow in those footsteps? Surely not Jay Leno with his inelegant departure and return. Conan is a little too quirky. Letterman is funny, but his reach seems limited. Perhaps the show director at The Comedy Awards was suggesting a new name when he cut directly from Letterman to the audience that night: Jon Stewart. From the looks of it, Stewart was the first to stand and clap after Letterman took his bow. I suspect that he, too, had an inkling about the torch that is being passed to the next generation of comedy legends.
The Daily Show has won the Emmy for "Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series" every year for the last 8 years. The Daily Show also has its own list of comedians who started as correspondents and have risen to new heights: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms to name a few. Though not yet as glittery a list as The Tonight Show's, it speaks to the ascendancy of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show as national icons.
Perhaps it's premature or just plain silly to anoint Stewart at this point, but I think he has changed the nature of the art. Besides establishing a comedic dynasty, interviewing kings, presidents and scholars, and becoming a necessary stop on any artist's new project promotion, he has also used The Daily Show to have a demonstrable impact on U.S. domestic policy. The best example of this is the 9/11 First Responders bill; The Daily Show's relentless focus on this topic seems to have created enough of a stir to move it past its stall point.
This makes me wonder: do we want more from our comedians in this new century? The early days of comedy involved mostly slapstick and silly musicals (think, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin). Today, however, a growing number of successful comedians are those commenting on current events and poking fun at presidents and despots; sometimes they even run for office.
Whatever role comedians play in the evolution of a public consciousness, they will at least continue to make us laugh. For those efforts, the torch-passing has been seamless and natural. There may not be a Jon Stewart Award for Comedic Excellence in the stars, but his ability to leave us in stitches is undeniable. And in the process of making us nearly wet ourselves, Stewart may find his influence growing in ways he can't yet imagine.