Back during the second Bush Administration, when Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” was being heralded, and in some corners derided, as the place where “young people got their news,” Stewart himself would always bristle. If that were true, he’d joke, then the country was really screwed. Behind the joke was a deeper point, in which Stewart recognized his own significance. The responsibility of informing the public shouldn’t haven fallen to comedians, but, if it had, it was surely more an indictment of the traditional news media than it was evidence of superficial young people or self-important comedians. Stewart, through his criticism of “Crossfire,” Fox News, and opinion-based cable news, finally demolished the pretense that cable-news talking heads had any more claim to authoritativeness than late-night talk-show hosts. Stewart and Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala and Bill O’Reilly were all in the same business; it was only Stewart who was honest enough to call out infotainment for what it was. He took on the role of the reluctant political warrior; he’d rather have been making dick jokes, but someone had to try to tell the truth.
We might debate just how sincere Stewart’s reluctance was, but there is no arguing the power of this stance as rhetoric. We’ve seen that power again in the past few months, as the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, formerly considered a genial lightweight, has emerged as a central voice in the national debate about health-care legislation. In May, speaking through tears, Kimmel told the story of his newborn son, who suffered from a congenital heart disease that would require multiple surgeries. His family’s experience had awoken him to the essential value of universal health insurance that didn’t impose lifetime caps or discriminate against patients with preëxisting conditions—it had made him an advocate for preserving Obamacare. That monologue thrust Kimmel into the middle of this summer’s health-care maneuverings; Senator Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, began telling reporters that any health-care measure he supported would have to pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” banning caps and protecting patients with preëxisting conditions, and went on Kimmel’s show to issue apledge to the host himself.
This week, Kimmel was once again at the front of the health-care debate when, on Tuesday, he lambasted Cassidy for putting his name on the newly proposed Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, a (seemingly) last-ditch effort in the Senate to overturn Obamacare. Kimmel said that the new bill broke the promises Cassidy had made to him, and called the senator a liar. During the monologue, Kimmel, like Stewart did for years, played down his own credentials in a way that only bolstered the power of his message: “Health care is complicated. It’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it. The details are confusing. And that’s what these guys are relying on. They’re counting on you to be so overwhelmed with all the information, you just trust them to take care of you.”
Hosts like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers are unabashedly political; in a post-Stewart world, they long ago dropped the idea that there was anything odd about a comedian lecturing the nation. But, by telling a deeply moving personal story about his son, Kimmel, whose comedic pedigree includes apolitical things like sports-talk radio and “The Man Show,” can credibly claim the mantle of a reasonable man moved by circumstance and conscience to speak up. And if eight Republican supporters of the Graham-Cassidy bill can’t tell reporters what it does, how are they any more qualified to discuss it than a talk-show host who has spent the last few months paying close attention to health-care policy? It’s not Kimmel’s fault that he is one of the few informed, honest, and authentic voices raising the issue on our televisions. Or that, thanks to a little studying up, he knows more about a bill than do the senators who are voting on it, or a President who tweets in support of it.
The next night, after Cassidy and other politicians had spent the day dismissing Kimmel as a political novice who didn’t understand what he was talking about, Kimmel turned up the fire in a scathing ten-minute monologue, in which he not only demonstrated his facility with the facts but also roasted the politicians, including Lindsey Graham and Chris Christie, who had belittled him, and the cable commentators, namely Brian Kilmeade, who had characterized him as an overreaching member of the “Hollywood élite.” Channelling Stewart, the original Fox News agitator, Kimmel called Kilmeade a “phony little creep.” And then he pulled back the Hollywood curtain to reveal the hypocrisy of Kilmeade’s criticism. Kilmeade was “such a fan”; he’d asked Kimmel for a blurb on his book; he bugged Kimmel’s agent looking for new projects. “He kisses my ass like a little boy meeting Batman,” Kimmel said, in one of the rare instances in which Internet headlines about a comedian “slaying,” “destroying,” or “obliterating” someone actually seemed fitting.
If Stewart revealed that there was no difference between comedy and cable news, then Kimmel has shown—if the election of Donald Trump were not already proof—that there is little to separate entertainers from politicians. Kimmel, Kilmeade, and Cassidy were all playing the same game—just, it turned out, at different levels. It was Cassidy who invented the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” and who, riding a viral high from it, went on Kimmel’s show to raise his national profile. He was drafting off of Kimmel’s heartfelt story—of a rich, goofy guy who gained sudden insight into the challenges of his fellow-Americans when his own baby son needed heart surgery—to make himself seem generous and kind. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” was a reasonable place to talk about health-care policy when it suited Cassidy. It was only when he released his own bill, which plainly violated the promises he had made to Kimmel’s audience, that a late-night talk show suddenly became a frivolous venue for civic discourse. Cassidy had tried to swim in the big pool of Hollywood, but showed himself to be a tiny fish. And then he was eaten by a shark.