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.
Still, Stewart’s character demanded that he remain at least ostensibly a centrist—he’s a little guy, after all, “just” a comedian, not some nut-job with an agenda. Temperamentally, he needed to pox both political parties. And so, along with most of the corporate media that he parodied, he indulged in false equivalencies—repeatedly blaming both sides equally.
At his massive “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” held in Washington, DC just days before the 2010 midterm elections gave control of the House to a revanchist GOP, Stewart was at peak false equivalence. Before 215,000 people on the Mall, Stewart attacked the media for amplifying extremist voices, recalling his famous complaint in 2004 that CNN’s Crossfire was “hurting America” (CNN dropped their signature shout-fest soon after). Images of media figures from right and left played on a huge video screen above the stage, “basically equat[ing] Tea Party extremists and people like Limbaugh and Beck on one side,” as Joe Romm wrote, “with people on the other side who have sometimes pointed out the extremism of the Tea Party, like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.” Stewart pleaded with them all to tone down the partisanship in hopes of moderating the crazy, much like drivers waiting at the Lincoln Tunnel do, by patiently taking turns. “You go, then I’ll go,” he said. “You go, then I’ll go.”
To promote the rally on his show, Stewart went so far as to pair clips of conservatives screaming that Obama is Hitler against one of a woman from Code Pink screaming that Bush is a war criminal. “Technically he is,” Stewart admitted to Rachael Maddow in a now-seminal interview after the midterms. Then why equate a truth about Bush with lies about Obama? “We were talking about tone there, not content necessarily,” Stewart told Maddow.
That was pretty weak tea, and it was already obvious that the other side was spiking their tea with the really hard stuff. Throughout the run-up to the 2012 elections and Obama’s second term, conservative arguments grew more racially charged, ranting on about Obama’s birth certificate, attacking voting rights, and persisting in defense of the police as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gathered steam.
Since the Maddow interview—which, to his credit, Stewart requested to defend his much-criticized rally—he has gradually let up on the false equivalencies and started to put the bad faith of conservative argument front and center. He zeroed in even harder on Fox News, dissecting it better than any other media critic and turning the network into a laughingstock among young people. Stewart also, repeatedly, went after Fox for repeatedly blaming poor people for their poverty, or denying that they were poor at all.
He became, in effect, paper to Fox’s rock. And it really bothered them. O’Reilly went on The Daily Show several times to argue; in each appearance, Papa Bear looked like he was running with scissors, not cutting through Stewart. Fox News chief Roger Ailes clearly respects Stewart’s ability to reach the youth demographic, something the old Mike Douglas Show producer has never been able to do, though Fox has tried to launch several right-wing comedy shows to compete with him, but has fallen far short. Viewing everything through the lens of TV marketing, conservatives could come to believe that Jon Stewart—and not their lost war, or the collapse of capitalism, or income inequality, or the inescapable injustice of mass incarceration—was responsible for the turn of youth toward liberalism in this century.
Stewart wasn’t responsible for the liberal resurgence, but he could not avoid its importance. For Stewart, comedy is still superior to politics—he was perfectly capable of bullying CNN’s Rick Sanchez because it got laughs—but the arc of comedy is inexorable. Race is one topic in American politics where a little guy comic can’t hide behind false equivalencies, or avoid seeing the big picture by pretending it’s above his pay grade. Racism has no good and bad side—it’s an ongoing demonstration that the American system isn’t fair, our original sin, Godzilla’s foot.
Former Daily Show writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac told Marc Maron in a podcast two weeks ago that Stewart told him to “Fuck off” after Cenac protested that Stewart’s impersonation of Herman Cain in 2012 sounded like the Kingfish on Amos ‘n’ Andy. As the only black writer on the show at the time, Cenac says he felt forced to “represent” all black people. For what it’s worth, Stewart later “kind of apologized,” Cenac says, and asked him to be on the last show. (Cenac said he “probably” would.)
The Daily Show didn’t begin with one of the most diverse staffs in comedy, but Stewart is leaving the show very different than he found it. When Trevor Noah takes over the host’s chair September 28, he and Larry Wilmore, whose Nightly Show succeeded The Colbert Report, will make a solid hour of black comedians doing TV news shtick four nights a week. Stewart created Wilmore’s show, helped recruit Noah, and will remain executive producer of both shows at least for the foreseeable future. Though there have been complaints that Stewart didn’t pass the torch to a woman, he did try—offering the job to Amy Schumer, who turned him down because she didn’t want to be stuck in a five-year contract.
Nothing becomes Stewart so much as the way in which he’s left the show. It shows us how he—and The Daily Show—are still growing, still adapting to America’s reality. “His basic idea” in creating the Nightly Show, Wilmore said of Stewart, “was there were lots of underrepresented voices out there that deserve to be heard.”