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Harry Stein
Why Jon Stewart Is All the Rage
Spring 2005

To say Jon Stewart enjoys an adoring press is like saying Bill Gates has a few bucks. In story after glowing story, the boyish 42-year-old host of Comedy Central’s hit fake newscast, The Daily Show, and author of the best-selling fake history text America (The Book) comes off as a lighthearted, twenty-first-century Diogenes: a fearless truth teller in an age of shameless pandering.

As Newsweek had it in a typically rapturous cover story, Stewart is a man “bravely battling pomposity and misinformation,” his TV show “a fearless social satire” and a “work of genius.” “When future historians come to write the political story of our times,” intoned Bill Moyers on his recently ended PBS show, “they will first have to review hundreds of hours of a cable television program called The Daily Show. You simply can’t understand American politics in the new millennium without The Daily Show.” “Mr. Stewart has turned his parodistic TV news show into a cultural force significantly larger than any mere satire of media idiocies,” chimed in the New York Times’s Frank Rich in a column entitled jon stewart’s perfect pitch, one of—count ‘em— 16 he’s written lauding the comedian. Along with such over-the-top encomia, The Daily Show has won multiple Emmys and even several prestigious journalism prizes, including a Peabody Award and the Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information (beating out real news shows).

While all this is certainly heady for Stewart and his fans, what does it mean? After all, the fair-minded viewer might find the half-hour show intermittently humorous, but he won’t detect anything “fearless” or even especially original in it. In truth, Stewart’s elevation to near-iconic status says more about those doing the elevating than about the comedian himself. His “bravery” and much-vaunted grasp of political nuance consists mostly of his embrace of every reflexive assumption shared by every litmus-tested liberal holding forth at every chic Manhattan dinner party.

Those assumptions cover everything from the Religious Right (scary) to easy sex (yummy), but Stewart’s Number One obsession, like that of many of his fans, is President George W. Bush. Almost every major event Stewart deals with, foreign or domestic, is an excuse for Bush derision. Depending on the story at hand, the president is a reckless cowboy or a devious schemer, an inept fool or an immoral knave. Pressed, Stewart would probably be comfortable with all of the above. Often, Stewart will simply show a brief clip of the president speaking, then silently react, his look showing bewilderment or dismay, as his audience, their own contempt for all things Bush once again confirmed, erupts in laughter.

Certainly Stewart’s timing could not have been better. When the former stand-up comic and MTV host took over The Daily Show in 1999, ditching its broader focus in favor of its now-famous ersatz news format, liberals were primed for a new comic hero.

As Laura Miller of the left-leaning webzine Salon explains, traditional political humor had long been the province of the Left, but “that all changed in the 1990s, when the priggishness of political correctitude injected new vitality into a segment of the population that had been shut out of comedy’s pantheon: assholes”—by which she means conservatives. “Suddenly,” Miller added sourly, “a guy could flaunt his most petty and vindictive prejudices and still get to feel like a champion of truth and freedom. You could rail against ‘victimology’ when, say, sexually harassed workers dared to resort to it, and then turn around and avail yourself of the same trend by claiming that a pack of censorious puritans was trying to shut you up.”

For Miller and those like her, Stewart, with his smart and smirky persona, was an answer to all that—a legitimate champion of truth. When Bush was elected in 2000—or “selected,” as so many on the Left insist—Stewart had his Great White Whale and surefire laugh machine all rolled into one. Angry and increasingly impotent, Stewart’s fans, futilely seeking a sense of purpose, found in him at least a voice and an attitude. If liberals could do nothing about John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act, they could damn well hoot along with the studio audience at Jon Stewart’s every derisive mention. The Daily Show’s ratings soared, especially among younger viewers, and media praise snowballed.

The press routinely portrays Stewart not merely as a gifted entertainer and social commentator but as an influential ideological player, a political pied piper for countless college kids and recent grads. The oft-cited evidence: a Pew Research Center survey, released during last year’s bruising campaign, that showed 21 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 naming The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as their primary information sources on the presidential race. These numbers, not surprisingly, proved of great interest to liberal pols. John Edwards, for one, actually announced his presidential candidacy on The Daily Show, prompting Stewart to warn: “We are a fake show, so you might have to do this again somewhere.”

The tradition of liberal topical comedy that Salon’s Miller alludes to goes back at least to Lenny Bruce, but Stewart’s most obvious model is the faux news anchor created by Chevy Chase in Saturday Night Live’s first season. Sitting behind his anchor desk—his soon-to-be-famous opening lines, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” mocking the self-importance of real anchors—Chase created a character that has since become a cliché: the hip, ironic, ever-so-knowing newsman, offering a deadpan take on actual events, dropping coy references to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as he amiably skewers the close-minded, the hypocritical, and the obtuse.

Stewart has smartly elaborated on the form. Shot four times a week before a wildly enthusiastic audience and broadcast twice a day, The Daily Show opens with its star at his anchor desk, giving his bemused take on the day’s headlines, and it closes with Stewart engaging in traditional talk-show chitchat, sometimes with a newsmaker or serious thinker, just as often with a mid-level movie star. The show’s middle segment, often the funniest part, usually features one of Stewart’s “correspondents” reporting from “the field” (while actually standing mere feet away in the studio in front of a cheesy graphic) or bantering with the host as straight man.

When Stewart eschews knee-jerk partisanship, even many conservatives find his comic persona immensely appealing: a quick-witted, understated everyman, given to self-deprecation and let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may candor. This persona was much in evi- dence, for instance, in the 2004 commencement address he gave at William and Mary, his alma mater. “I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate,” he told the graduates. “When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me, from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me,” he continued. “As a person, I am honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better. . . . But today isn’t about how my presence here devalues this fine institution. It is about you, the graduates.”

Stewart also effectively mobilizes this mock-serious tone in America (The Book). Mimicking a typical high school history text, right down to the laminated cover and the “discussion questions” at the end of chapters—sample question for the media chapter: “What are the top 100 TV shows you would rather watch instead of the nightly news?”—the book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Among other riffs on convention, it features an introduction by Thomas Jefferson and a standings table, sports-page style, of European nations’ war records. Named Publishers Weekly’s “Book of the Year,” it topped the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for 15 weeks, greatly expanding Stewart’s reach.

At its best, The Daily Show takes the same poker-faced, out-of-left-field approach to subjects the real news takes seriously. Not long ago, for example, when the blogosphere’s exposure of the biases of mainstream media figures had suddenly become the hot topic, correspondent Stephen Colbert weighed in. Tall, bespectacled, and impeccably groomed, full of the voice-of-God assurance we associate with generations of network reporters, Colbert wears any number of hats on the show: Senior Political Correspondent, Senior European Bureau Chief, Senior Religion Correspondent, and even—when waxing eloquent with academic fraudulence on Christo’s installation The Gates—Senior Conceptual Art Correspondent. This time, as Senior Media Correspondent, he began his back-and-forth with Stewart with a shocking admission:

Colbert: Jon, before we start, I’d like to get something off my chest, before I get outed by the bloggers. My real name isn’t Stephen Colbert, it’s Ted Hitler. No relation. [pause] Well, distant relation. . . . I’m Adolf Hitler’s grandson. Anyway, it’s out there, it’s no longer news.
Stewart: Uh . . . Thank you for your honesty, Stephen.
Colbert: It’s Ted. Ted Hitler. The vast majority of bloggers out there are responsible. . . . Where I draw the line is with these attack bloggers—just someone with a computer who gathers, collates, and publishes accurate information that is then read by the general public. They have no credibility, all they have is facts. Spare me!
Stewart: As long as the blogs fact-check, why would you even object to this kind of political coverage?
Colbert: Because it’s not political coverage, Jon. They’re reporting on reporters. First rule of journalism is: don’t talk about journalism. Nobody likes a snitch.

Of course, The Daily Show talks about journalism—and journalists—all the time, another reason that media types swoon over it. Though much of what Stewart and his cronies say about the press is acidly contemptuous, even this plays to the bottomless narcissism of many journalists: if nothing else, Stewart reassures them that they remain at the center of the world.

More to the point, many reporters agree with the comic’s harsh critique of the media, at least when it comes to coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Thus, startling as the charge may be to conservatives, media types delight when Stewart regularly accuses the press of giving the president a free pass. The exchange with Colbert about bloggers, for instance, works in the following:

Stewart: What bloggers do, as you describe it, is in many respects what journalists do.
Colbert [with rich contempt]: What journalists do, Jon? As a journalist, I think I know what I do. I’m not sitting at home in front of my computer. I’m out here busting my hump at the White House, transcribing their press releases, repeating their talking points—that’s how you earn your nickname from President Bush!

“Our show is obviously at a disadvantage with any of the other news shows we’re competing against,” Stewart mused in another broadcast. “For one thing, we’re fake. They are not. So in terms of credibility, we are . . . ”—a beat, a patented Stewart blank look—“well, oddly enough, we’re about even.”

To Stewart and his crew, Iraq has long been “Mess O’ Potamia,” with even the best news spun as potentially disastrous. Immediately following the historic Iraqi elections, Stewart showed a chart of the incoming National Assembly, broken down by party. “The Shiites took 140 seats for their United Iraqi Alliance ticket,” he explained, “followed by the Kurdistan—” An explosion blows up a good bit of the chart. “I guess,” deadpanned Stewart, “there are still some bugs to work out in the electoral system.” For those who viewed the Iraqi elections as a triumph of hope and humanity over evil, this reaction failed to amuse.

Stewart’s profound cynicism about America as a bastion of freedom and democracy is at the core of America (The Book). For all the genuine laughs, notes Megan Basham on NationalReviewOnline, the book makes abundantly clear “what a knuckle-dragging Philistine you are if you reflect on America the Beautiful with any sort of warm sentiment. . . . No aspect of our patriotic pride is too sacred to be sacrificed on the altar of irony.” What’s more, she continues, “If a conservative writing team ever penned a joke about a Democratic black leader like the one made by Stewart’s team about Clarence Thomas (a mocking classroom activity in the book instructs children, ‘Using felt and yarn, make a hand puppet of Clarence Thomas. Ta-da! You’re Antonin Scalia!’), there would be p.r. hell to pay.”

It speaks volumes about contemporary liberalism that in “progressive” circles, such stuff passes for brilliant satire.

Since Stewart’s adamant- ly liberal worldview—which includes, among many, many other easy hits, regular slams of Fox News and mockery of traditionalist beliefs—is so central to his comedy, it’s a bit odd to see his media fans always asserting that he’s an equal-opportunity basher. The New York Times’s Rich, for example, writes, “The Daily Show has fulfilled its mission without being particularly ideological.” Similarly, Newsweek presented a harmless gibe Stewart made at Democratic fringe presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich’s expense as evidence of his supposed nonpartisanship. “Jon Stewart is allergic to liars, spinners, and boasters,” the magazine gushed, “even pint-sized ones from Ohio.” It then relates Stewart’s joke: “I heard Dennis Kucinich in the last Democratic debate say, ‘When I’m president . . . ’ and I just wanted to stop him and say, ‘Dude.’ ”

Doubtless Kucinich was trading in unreality, but so do journalists who portray Stewart as ideologically neutral. While this might be construed as merely another case (as lyricist Lorenz Hart so deftly had it) of “the self-delusion that believes the lie”—a common enough tendency among today’s media elite—it’s surely also an effort to justify journalists’ wild enthusiasm for the comedian. The truth, after all, plays less well: they love Jon Stewart not only because he’s smart and “fearless” but because he shares their jaundiced views of America.

There’s no more striking example of how big a part ideology plays in the mainstream media’s taste in comedy than its about-face on Stewart’s fellow comedian Dennis Miller. Making his bones as one of Chevy Chase’s successors behind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor desk, Miller was long a media darling, praised like Stewart for inventiveness and daring, especially when he became host of his long-running HBO show, Dennis Miller Live. As the New York Times’s Caryn James wrote in 1996, Miller is “as scabrous and funny a political satirist as anyone around,” given to “irreverent comments on the news.”

That’s when Miller was a man of the Left. Then, after September 11, in a metamorphosis both startling and brave, given the world in which he made his living, Miller emerged as an outspoken defender of Bush’s foreign policy. Instantly, he became the skunk at the media party. In 2004, hosting a new show on CNBC, he found himself dismissed by the very same Caryn James as one of “the stand-up comics turned pontificating policy wonks.” To her colleague Rich, he was simply “formerly funny.”

Jon Stewart is in no danger of such treatment anytime soon. Though to his credit, Stewart sometimes invites conservatives like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol for the show’s concluding interview segment (and treats them with good-humored civility), his warmest interviews are with guests whose liberal views mirror his own. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, arguably the mainstream media’s most dogged anti-Bush reporter, is a particular favorite. On a recent Hersh appearance, promoting a piece that alleged, dubiously, that Bush is spoiling for war with Iran, the host introduced him with something approaching awe—“He does a thing called real reporting”—and went on to embrace Hersh’s every sour observation and unsubstantiated conclusion.

It’s hardly a coincidence that, as the Swift Boat Veterans’ attack threatened to sink John Kerry’s campaign in the fall of 2004, raising questions about his Vietnam record and antiwar activities when he returned from combat, the candidate chose The Daily Show as the venue from which to respond. In what can only be described as a classic suck-up session, Stewart began: “Now how—how are you holding up? This has been a—it’s been a rough couple weeks. I’ve been following—I watch a lot of the cable news shows. So I understand that apparently you were never in Vietnam [laughs].”

Kerry: [laughs] That’s what I understand, too. But I—I’m trying to find out what happened.
Stewart: Now is it—
Kerry: That part of my life. I don’t know.
Stewart: Exactly. It’s nice, though. I know—35 years ago I have friends that have come forward and say—you did have cooties. You know, that sort of thing [laughs]. Is it—do you—do you—is it hard not to take it personally?

Responding later to criticism about a line of questioning so soft it hardly qualified as questioning at all, Stewart blithely noted, as he always does in such situations, that he is merely a comedian, not a journalist.

Fair enough, except that no one takes Stewart—nor does he really take himself—for another Jay Leno. Citing the Pew numbers, many observers maintained he would deliver his young audience en masse to the Democrats, helping propel Kerry to victory. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, for instance, warned darkly of Stewart’s hold on the vast, untapped “stoned slacker” vote.

The thinking here was understandable. It is safe to say that the vast majority of Stewart’s young fans have no more a coherent political philosophy than they do a sense of history. What they do tend to have, in the contemporary vernacular, is attitude: a set of poses, ranging from an easy familiarity with drug culture to a bemused contempt for religion, that define one as hip. Jon Stewart confirms that view of themselves in every broadcast.

Still, it’s hard precisely to gauge what kind of influence, if any, Stewart ultimately had on the 2004 election. As it turned out, Bush did about as well with younger voters as he did in 2000—winning about 45 percent of the total—and 18- to 29-year-olds made up the same percentage of the total turnout as they had four years earlier.

What’s beyond a doubt is how much emotion the comedian himself had invested in the election’s outcome. The New York Daily News notes that Stewart was “in a real bad mood” on election night, cutting out after spending only a few minutes at The Daily Show’s election party. His next show was uncharacteristically bitter. Typifying the half-hour’s tenor was a rant by Lewis Black, easily the nastiest of the show’s regular crew: “The electorate has spoken,” he growled. “I won’t try to imitate out of respect for the mentally retarded.”

Nor is there any doubt about Stewart’s continuing influence on the elite media. Consider his height-of-the-election appearance on CNN’s long-running political debate program, Crossfire. Stewart supposedly was there to hawk his book, and the segment began with conservative co-host Tucker Carlson amiably introducing the comedian as “the most trusted name in fake news,” a man with a “one- of-a-kind take on politics, the press, and America.” But a humorless Stewart—in liberal high dudgeon—almost immediately launched into an attack on the program and its hosts for purported journalistic failures. With its heat-over- light confrontational format, Crossfire was “hurting America,” Stewart charged. Hosts Carlson and liberal Paul Begala were guilty of “partisan hackery.”

The befuddled hosts at first tried to jolly Stewart into being the good-natured guest they’d expected. But finally, Carlson had enough, and brought up Stewart’s toothless interview with Kerry. “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show,” shot back Stewart, “you’re more than welcome to.”

The Crossfire audience cheered Stewart, but not nearly as much as the mainstream press did. “Hosts of CNN’s Crossfire had expected their Friday guest to be the zany and sophisticated satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s popular The Daily Show,” as the Los Angeles Times spun it. “Instead, they got Citizen Stewart, a passionate and earnest media watchdog who snarled and begged them to ‘stop hurting America.’ ”

Yet even Stewart must have been surprised by what happened next. Incoming CNN president Jonathan Klein fired Carlson and announced that the network would cancel the near-moribund Crossfire.

“I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp,” he told the Associated Press.

Soon after, when the Memogate scandal forced CBS anchor Dan Rather into early retirement, there was actually speculation that the network would offer comic Stewart a prominent role in a revamped nightly news broadcast. Perhaps sensing that joining the CBS News team wouldn’t be an upward career move, Stewart used his show to quash the rumors. “Can this loser network ever pull itself out of the crapper?” intoned one of its phony correspondents. “They’ve floated all kinds of names to replace Dan Rather, from Katie Couric to”—as a photo of a mugging Stewart appeared on the screen—“Douchebag McJokenstein.”

It is awfully hard in this age of celebrity preening to dislike a guy who so readily pokes fun at himself. Still, it’s hardly as if taking shots at CBS these days qualifies Stewart as a risk-taker.

He appeared to be making a far bolder move a couple of months later when, with the democratic tide rising in the Middle East, he acknowledged that maybe Bush’s policy in the region hadn’t been so loony after all. He admitted that such a thought left him full of “cognitive dissonance,” but “when you see the Lebanese in the streets, you say, ‘Oh my God, it’s working!’ ”

“[P]retty soon, Republicans are gonna be like, ‘Reagan was nothing compared to this guy,’ ” Stewart added, cradling his head in his hands. “Like, my kid’s gonna go to a high school named after him, I just know it.”

“Well,” comforted his guest, a die-hard former Clinton official, “there’s still Iran and North Korea, don’t forget.”

“Iran and North Korea,” echoed Stewart hopefully, as he thrust crossed fingers up in the air for luck. “That’s true, that is true.”

At least somewhat reassured, his audience roared.

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