There’s no question Jon Stewart had the attention of millions but, all kidding aside, was he a part of the political game or just a color commentator?
By Matt Hanson
I remember the moment when The Daily Show cast its spell on me. It was in late 2000 and I was sitting in my sophomoric haze in a Purchase College dorm room idly watching Comedy Central. Jon Stewart interrupted an old SNL rerun to promote that night’s episode. Stewart said there was still a lot of craziness about the Presidential election, voting in Florida hadn’t been fully recounted, “pregnant” chads were still hanging everywhere, and all that was happening was actually pretty important. He looked directly into the camera and said in an irreverently commanding tone “so put the bong down…and watch.” I exhaled deeply in synchronistic shock, blinked my eyes, and leaned forward.
When Stewart took the helm in 1999, The Daily Show was about little more than blithely yukking it up at the current celebrity gossip. Once the new millennium arrived, and the Clinton years turned to the Bush era, The Daily Show evolved beyond cheap entertainment and began to serve up social and political relevance, offering comedic television whose gleeful irreverence was tinctured with moral purpose.
A lot of the tributes I’ve seen list Stewart’s gutsy post-9/11 cold open as one of his finest moments and rightly so. It’s a magnificent, heartfelt moment precisely because he openly questions the meaning of entertainment in the wake of the horrible in moving and inspiring terms, while also managing to get in a joke or two. You watch someone pull himself together after a national and personal trauma (Stewart mentions that he lives and works near Ground Zero) by intelligently defining the meaning of his grief. It’s worth re-watching after all these years because it pinpoints the moment when The Daily Show began to finally hit its stride, fusing its irreverent style with a new sense of purpose:
Given what was suddenly too urgent to ignore, I couldn’t have been the only collegiate malcontent who felt the need for a world-historical wake up call. Suddenly, the political became real for so many otherwise clueless or complacent people like myself. It became glaringly obvious that these were (as the old Chinese curse phrased it) “interesting times” and if you wanted to be in any way civically responsible, it was time to start paying attention to the world beyond the dorm room.
Sixties nostalgia notwithstanding, the early years of the 21st Century were a hell of a time to come into political awareness. I remember pouring over newspapers, passionately and confusingly debating issues like WMDs, the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the War on Terror, Operation Iraqi Freedom, warrantless wiretapping, Al Qaeda, and, of course, the mind-bending mendacity of Fox News. Once the mental strain got too heavy (which was fairly often) I craved what Jon Stewart provided: a witty, articulate, and well-informed voice that cleared the air when the fog-machine machinations of Bush & company got to be too much to take.
Once The Daily Show started attacking real targets, challenging the official narratives as well as the power-players-in-charge, lambasting corrupt institutions and the governments that nurture them, Stewart’s place in the culture started to grow. The Daily Show received particular attention for delivering a version of what Stewart often called “fake news” — which turned out to be better informed than the genuine article. Stewart and his crew of writers won Emmys and a prestigious Peabody award. He hosted the Oscars, published bestselling books, promoted an impressive range of talented correspondents, including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, John Oliver, Rob Corddry, Larry Wilmore, and many more who went on to make interesting careers on their own.
Aside from the inspired riffs on the day’s headlines, Stewart’s interviews were consistently insightful, thoughtful and witty, on par with old masters of conversation like Dick Cavett and Steve Allen. Over the years, The Daily Show hosted an impressively sophisticated range of guests from all over the cultural spectrum, from politicians and world leaders to journalists, activists, scientists, and historians. There were still plenty of celebrities, but Stewart’s approach was refreshingly informal and never sycophantic; he could banter just as easily with Ricky Gervais as with Christopher Hitchens or Kurt Vonnegut.
Appearing on Crossfire in 2004, he criticized the show’s lack of responsible political debate, calling Tucker Carlson a dick to his face while arguing that’shout’ shows like this were “hurting America.” He not only emerged relatively unscathed but surprisingly vindicated. The brass at CNN publicly agreed with Stewart’s judgment and canceled the show not long after his appearance.
Stewart applied the same rigorous standard to Fox News, of course, but he never criticized it blithely. Whenever he called someone out for hypocrisy or misinformation he made sure to provide montages of clips as evidence to back up his claim. Walking the tightrope between being courteous and trenchant, his jokes hit their mark more effectively because he took the other side’s argument seriously enough to show how irrational it was.
In the last years of Bush’s second term, Stewart began to be referred to as the most trusted man in news. Whether or not this could be empirically proven, there’s no question he had earned the attention of millions, which raised a salient question: all kidding aside, was he a part of the political game or just a color commentator?
There’s a fascinating interview with Rachel Maddow after Stewart’s quixotic 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity in which she argues that Stewart was working from inside the political arena, the same as she is, rather than just throwing spitballs, as he claimed. Stewart responded by affirming his essential responsibility as a comedian rather than a political leader, stating: “there is no honor in what I do, but try to do it as honorably as I can.”
This self-deprecation may be the key to why The Daily Show became such a phenomenon. Stewart squared the circle: he gained authority in the public eye because he refused to assume the role of authority for himself. His elemental duty as a comedian was to get the laugh, but he managed to be thoughtful while doing it because the goal was never just laughter for its own sake. There was a point to be made.
Stewart never forgot that satire, and serious comedy in general, has always been concerned with deflating egos, pricking consciences, calling out hypocrisies, etc. Of course, free speech doesn’t translate into influence: no matter how sharp his wits, the satirist isn’t often able to change the course of the culture whose diseases he or she so accurately diagnose. Otherwise, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would have stopped Hitler in his tracks and The Smothers Brothers would have stopped the Vietnam War.
There’s a limit to what satire, no matter how witty or penetrating it may be, can accomplish in practical terms. People might enjoy listening to the court jester, and they might laugh with him as much as at him, but he’ll never actually get to be in charge, which is precisely what gives him the freedom to say what other people might be otherwise too timid or confused to think. At best, the satirist can prod (and/or shame) his or her audiences into thinking about the limits of their society and culture in a new way. That is a valuable role in a democracy, but action generated by truth-telling is frustratingly slow to come.
Part of The Daily Show’s appeal was therapeutic, because laughing at what the media’s moronic inferno churns out can help get you through the headache of living through it. If it was once true that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, in the 21st Century elections are won and lost over conversations at the water cooler or in the Facebook newsfeed.
Our and the media’s non-stop hunger for political blood sport demanded endless clips screaming that Jon Stewart was “eviscerating” or “destroying” some talking head or other. This was wishful thinking at its most juvenile. Going to Jon Stewart for your entire diet of important information misjudged the mission of the program as well. Yes, The Daily Show made a hilarious and compelling case for why and how those in power were fools. But it was up to the viewer to decide what to do with that revelation. I have spent most of my adult life in some form of political work or another, and it wasn’t because Jon Stewart told me to. But I don’t know how I would have gone through with the hard work of figuring out what I thought if The Daily Show hadn’t been there to keep me interested and entertained through some very lean years.
As much as it pains me to see Stewart go, it was a wise move for him to decide to step down at the peak of his game. This way he avoided repeating old formulas and turning The Daily Show into something knee-jerk and repetitive. The space Stewart created for the program in our popular culture is going to be filled by someone newer and younger, and there is a benefit with showcasing an entirely different comedian’s vision. Let’s hope that means that another generation of viewers are going to be told — in a fresh way — to ‘put the bong down .. and watch.’ That is as real as the fake news ever was, and could ever hope to be.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.