When Jon Stewart ends his 16-year run hosting The Daily Show tonight, progressives everywhere will miss him terribly. But politics has never been Stewart’s chief concern—his heart has always been with comedy.
Sometimes this has gotten him into trouble—for mocking lefty activists whose tone is too earnest for his ironic tastes, for instance, or for doing bits on race that turn on stereotypes, as Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac has recently pointed out. When confronted about any such shortcomings, Stewart typically kicks and screams, repeating, “I’m a comedian first.” But one thing we’ve learned about Stewart is that he learns, he grows. Because he takes comedy seriously, Stewart tries to bend its arc toward justice, and that has become the Daily Show’s great contribution to our culture and the true measure of Stewart’s temperament.
Stewart has always been an outsider/little guy comic, a smart aleck who compensates for weakness with wit. It’s almost as much a character Stewart plays as the Bill O’Reilly knock-off blowhard was for Colbert.
There’s a distinct strand of little-guy comedy that’s Jewish-American—think the Marx brothers, Rodney Dangerfield, the early Woody Allen—but Stewart came of age as a comedian in the 1990s, when Jerry Seinfeld (the most successful comic of his generation) was jettisoning jokes about vulnerability for meta-wisecracks about narcissism and privilege. Stewart’s career is in some ways a course correction after Seinfeld, a throwback to the little-guy tradition, always punching up, always batting his Bambi eyes as Godzilla steps on him.
That’s almost inevitably a center-left position, especially in an oligarchy. But it isn’t ideological, and one of the fun things about watching Stewart over sixteen years has been seeing him move from “I want everyone to laugh at my jokes” to “At long last, sir, have you no decency?”
The process wasn’t foreordained by any means. Stewart voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988; he had Katrina vanden Heuvel on his show in 2002, and she recalls his parting words: “‘Join us in the center,’ he said as the interview concluded. ‘That’s my movement.’” Stewart is so often lumped together with the left today that we forget his show was a nightly demonstration of how the Iraq war radicalized American political discourse and made it more progressive.