Jon Stewart’s Place in History

Jon Stewart (John Stuart Leibowitz, b. 1962) is nearing the 6-0 mark; he became a transformative figure in television comedy around 20 years ago. We can begin to discuss him as history.

My admiration and respect for this comedian has grown in recent years, ironically, as he become less the comedian and more the citizen activist/ journalist. During his Daily Show tenure (1999-2015) I found myself too irritated by his fan base to allow myself to become much exercised over his excellence. First, there were the countless people who confessed to you that The Daily Show was where they got ALL their news. That’s….just so contemptible we won’t even dignify it with disparagement. On the other hand there are the throngs who erroneously believe that Stewart “invented comedy news”. No, no, no, and no. Headlines as a subject for comedy is at least a century old, pioneered by the likes of Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, That Was the Week That Was, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update”, Not Necessarily the News, and I’m sure there are others. Never heard of most of those? Too bad. Not only did they exist, but they were all nationally known in their time; “Weekend Update” still is. Further, Stewart did not even create The Daily Show. It was the brainchild in 1996 of Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, and was originally hosted by Craig Kilborn. But it would be true to say that the show did not truly take off until Stewart, who had hosted several other shows at Comedy Central and MTV in the early-mid ’90s, began to sit at the anchor desk.

What was original about the form The Daily Show eventually assumed was that it merged two previous existing genres. 1) News parody in the vein of many of those pre-existing shows we mentioned; and 2) Genuine news delivery, either conveyed with sarcastic wit in op-ed commentator fashion; or via earnest (though sometimes spontaneously humorous) interviews conducted by Stewart in the tradition of guys like David Frost, Dick Cavett, or Jack Paar; or segments from a cast of contributors, some of whom would go on location and conduct mock interviews with people on the street or political gatherings in order to share with us the preposterous (but real) opinions and beliefs of actual Americans. Like Steve Allen, he assembled a cast of characters as his “contributors” that became legendary, many of them going on to host similar shows of their own, or to become movie or TV stars: Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Steve Carrell, Lewis Black, Rob Cordrry, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, etc, and of course, Trevor Noah, to whom Stewart handed the keys in 2015.

As for Stewart himself, he’d be the first to admit (I hope) that he stands on the shoulders of giants like the aformentioned Frost and Cavett. It is far from unprecedented that a TV comedian would conduct serious or semi-serious interviews and commentary. In the ’60s and early ’70s there were assassinations, riots, protests, war. There were moments when even guys like Johnny Carson were forced to drop the prepared monologue and deliver grim bombshells. What can be said for Stewart and company, however, and it’s a huge thing, is that they REVIVED the concept, and fed it, and expanded it, at a crucial time, when the Bush-Cheney juggernaut was waging war, creating a national security state, violating human rights, stoking jingoism, etc. And Stewart was not just gently satirical in a mainstream kind of way. He was more angry and probing. He’s mentioned George Carlin and Lenny Bruce as heroes. I would mention in this context also Paul Krassner. Also new is the fact that Stewart came along in the period when 24 hour cable news was truly ascendant and when the distinctions between opinion, entertainment, and news were all blurring. MSNBC had Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann on the left, Fox had Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson on the right. Norm MacDonald had coined the term “fake news” overtly to describe what he did on SNL. In time the distinctions became so blurred that large segments of the public became genuinely and tragically confused about who to believe, not a good situation, though hard to pin on any one culprit. In essence, it all became self-parody. Parody of it became almost redundant, and truth became the only direction in which to go.

So, as we mentioned, Stewart became for many people “the most trusted man in America”, a kind of cross between Walter Cronkite, Springsteen, and a Jewish Mark Twain. Aiding his style was his careworn face, unusual for a comedian, with enormous eyes that looked constantly worried, occasionally terrified. Clearly intelligent, he also brought a common sense, down-to-earth sensibility to the table which people related to. Circa 2010 he brought his powers of persuasion to bear when he began to advocate for 9/11 First Responders (a telling cause, for Stewart rose to prominence in the wake of that event). And just a couple of months ago, he launched The Problem with Jon Stewart, a much more pointedly serious talk and news show on Apple TV +. He isn’t monkeying around these days. He devotes episodes of his show to major, transcendent American themes like War, Guns, Freedom, and The Economy (i.e., the inequality thereof), featuring real journalism and non-ironic commentary. I am a huge fan of what he is doing on the new show. He is more of an elder statesman now. He brings gravitas in addition to quick wit. Most importantly, and crucially for these times, no longer is there any ambiguity about what is being communicated. The times are dire, and he has risen to them.