As is depressingly often the case these days, I'm late to this particular party: Steve Almond cogently summed up this argument three years ago in "The Joke's on You" in the Baffler.
[Stewart's] criticism of the Iraq war—a series of reports under the banner Mess O’Potamia—might have done more to diffuse the antiwar movement than the phone surveillance clauses embedded in the Patriot Act. Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case? It’s a lot easier, and more fun, to experience the war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress requiring citizen activism.Almond revisited his point in a recent Salon piece, "We all got addicted to Jon Stewart". The Salon piece's teaser line: "He needed dysfunction for laughs. We needed laughs to feel better about the dysfunction. It's time we stop [sic] laughing."
Indeed, it's time we stopped laughing.
Too many of us, and I'm certainly in this camp, never asked ourselves if we should do anything about the hypocrisy and outright criminality Stewart and Colbert brought to our attention. We might never have said it out loud or even consciously thought about it, but we acted as if watching their shows was a contribution to improving the country.
I'll probably keep watching The Daily Show after Stewart leaves. I'll probably watch either The Nightly Show or Colbert on CBS, too. But maybe I'll have gotten over the feeling that just watching these guys is enough. Maybe I'll do something productive instead.