Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be imminent on the Feb. 26, 2015 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart coming back from the final commercial break. Stewart thanked his guests and introduced the evening’s Moment of Zen segment to close out the show.
Typically, the Moment of Zen—whether it be a brief clip of a ridiculous puff piece, a news anchor gaffe, old footage of a monkey washing a cat, etc.—offers closure to the show and is somewhat sacred, albeit in the most comedic way possible. But during this particular show, something unprecedented occurred:
Of course, WWE’s Seth Rollins “crashing” the Daily Show wasn’t totally unexpected, as Stewart and Rollins had been trading verbal’s barbs with each other on their respective programs and social media sites for days. It all began when Rollins cut an in-character promo (the professional wrestler’s equivalent of an actor’s monologue) on Raw weeks before, proclaiming that he was so powerful that he could do anything he wanted to, including taking over Stewart’s duties on The Daily Show to “make that thing watchable.” Stewart clearly “took offense” to this notion and called Rollins out in his own rebuttal via a YouTube video.
Thus, the Rollins “challenge” on The Daily Show and Stewart’s subsequent appearance WWE Raw (“Live from Newark!”) the following Monday.
This crossover of “fake news” and “fake sports” might seem odd on paper. The stereotypical audiences for each program are almost completely disparate: The Daily Show appeals to a more sophisticated and intellectual crowd, with more cultural experiences and refined tastes (aka, “highbrow”), while Raw, and professional wrestling in general, is often thought of as the pinnacle lowbrow entertainment aimed at the blue collar crowd; the simple folks who just want to crack open a beer after work and not spend too much time thinking. Admittedly, that’s an awfully crude and impossibly baseless comparison, but ask anybody around your vocations how they perceive the audiences for each show and you’re likely to get a very similar response. Even though both shows are on basic cable and they certainly aim to reach segments of the crucial 18-to-34-year-old demographic, these shows are poles apart. At least, it’s certainly hard to imagine fans of The Daily Show tuning into Raw every Monday, and vice versa.
However, given more deliberate observation, Raw and The Daily Show are far more similar than they appear on the surface. They exist in a parallel universe and stand on the fringes of mainstream media. Both shows traffic in the realm of that other obscene “F” word. And while Stewart readily and happily admits that he is a comedian hosting a “fake news show,” WWE wrestlers certainly balk at that adjective being used to describe what they do for a living. Regardless, both shows offer a form of escape for their respective audiences. The events that take place week after week on Raw offer pure, unadulterated drama, where the audience can live vicariously through characters settling their disputes through intense dialogue and spectacularly choreographed battles. It is unlike any other form of serial entertainment. Likewise, Stewart offers audiences a reprieve from actual broadcast news and offers a perspective on the news that they can’t get anywhere else in the mainstream media. These are two wholly unique texts that reach out to subcultures that don’t fit in with popular culture’s trends, yet are forced to participate in a mainstream society.
Furthermore, rather than question why Stewart would get involved with WWE, perhaps the question should be, “Why didn’t this happen sooner?” In the interest of full disclosure for a celebrity I don’t know personally: Stewart is a legit WWE fan.
Less than a year ago, WWE cameras picked him and his son out of the Boston crowd during the Money in the Bank pay-per-view event. He’s made references to professional wrestling in dozens of episodes of The Daily Show and even had WWE legend Mick Foley on board as the show’s “Senior Asskicker.” Whether or not Rollins calling Stewart out during his promo was an improvised moment or a pre-meditated move to set-up an eventual guest appearance by Stewart is a moot point. This partnership was mutually beneficial, in that Stewart could live out a fantasy of being involved in a WWE storyline and the WWE could gain some mainstream publicity during the peak promotional period of its vital “Wrestlemania season.”
And Stewart’s eventual appearance on Raw was highly entertaining and successful from an artistic standpoint, especially considering that WWE will often trot out celebrities (with no knowledge of the WWE product) on Raw for quick one-offs. It often results in awkward television (i.e. Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s recent hosting duties drew audible apathy from the WWE Universe) and fleeting publicity. Stewart, however, appeared to be completely game and showed a great deal of respect for the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding him. Stewart was well received and highly praised by both WWE fans and many professional wrestlers. Current WWE star—and notably silent and humorless grump—Randy Orton even took to Twitter to praise Stewart, “hop[ing] to have him back.”
While on the WWE side it was a laudable moment, it’s difficult to know how fans of The Daily Show received Rollins appearance on the Comedy Central stage, let alone how they felt about Stewart appearing on a wrestling program. While these two shows exist in a parallel universe, there still exists a massive cultural divide. It doesn’t help that WWE still tends to swallow its own foot culturally. Racism and sexism—both in the ring and backstage—still plague the brand on occasion. There are also storylines that semi-frequently suffer from sophomoric humor or cultural references that are often at least 15-years-old or both of those tropes at the same time. For example, on the same episode of Raw that featured Stewart, a major plot point in the bubbling feud between the Miz and his stunt double, Damien Mizdow, heavily involved a Viagra parody. The only thing that seemed to be missing was a Monica Lewinsky joke:
Stewart’s involvement with WWE was, likely, a once in a lifetime moment that certainly elevated WWE’s cultural cachet. Unfortunately, as the story becomes less and less newsworthy with each passing week, we can’t be certain how this will affect WWE in the long-term. It is a little disappointing to see the link between Raw and The Daily Show vanish so quickly. It has the potential to help both programs in the long-term. But at the very least, for a brief moment, two disparate audiences came together. That does not happen as often as it probably should.