Jon Stewart's Legacy is Comedy, Not Truth
A little over 20 years ago, a much younger John Daly who had few responsibilities, a 32-inch waist, and a full head of hair used to return to his college dorm room after a long day of classes and routinely flip on some mindless television to unwind.
MTV was typically the channel of choice. It was the era of The Real World, Beavis and Butt-Head, and that infectious, Seattle sound that redefined the Rock genre.
One day, quite possibly between a Road Rules marathon and a rebroadcast of the latest Aeon Flux episode, I discovered a new show with little fanfare called You Wrote It, You Watch It. The show invited MTV viewers to send in stories that would then be acted out on the show by a comedic group of actors. The skits weren't very funny, but the same could not be said about the show's host. He was a short fellow with dark, wavy hair and a pointy nose named Jon Stewart.
I had never heard of Stewart before, but I became an instant fan. There was something refreshingly unique about his dry wit, his playful, self-deprecating delivery, and even the subtle facial expressions he'd make. I found the man to be downright hilarious.
You Wrote It, You Watch It didn't last very long, but Stewart soon turned back up on the network with his own talk show. It didn't have much of a budget, and the guests weren't exactly making anyone's A-list, but it was funny; really funny! One of the show's best qualities was the way Stewart mocked MTV and several of its on-air personalities for how seriously they took themselves. I watched the show religiously, and got several of my friends interested in it.
"You know why you like this guy, don't you?" I remember a friend asking me while we were watching the show together one night. "He's just like you."
Though I would never proclaim to have an ounce of Jon Stewart's comedic talent, I understood what my friend meant. Stewart and I shared the same sense of humor. We were equally immature. We found absurdities in the same societal narratives, and we refused to take ourselves seriously. In a way, he tapped into my inner adolescence and simplistic worldview, and I suppose that's what I appreciated the most about him. I felt that he spoke to my generation, and at that point in my life, I guess that meant something.
When The Jon Stewart Show left MTV for an hour-long syndicated show, I continued to tune in. I even once sent a fan letter to the show, and was admittedly excited when I received an autographed photo of Stewart in return. It hung on my apartment wall for the duration of my college years, and I actually discovered it in a box in the basement of my house just a few weeks ago.
The ratings for the syndicated show ended up being pretty abysmal for whatever reason, and it was soon cancelled. Though Stewart put on an upbeat face for those last few episodes, it was clear to me that he was hurting over the situation. One of Stewart's final guests was the late comedian David Brenner. I remember Brenner offering Stewart words of encouragement, saying something like, "There's one thing you can't keep down in this business, and that's real talent. And you have real talent."
As we all know, Brenner was right. Stewart rebounded by landing the hosting role on Comedy Central's The Daily Show (which turned into a 16 year run). I didn't follow Stewart as closely once he began that stage of his career, though I was happy for his success. I wasn't much into politics (for which Stewart mocked both political parties equally at the time). I had graduated from college, and was moving on with my life and my own career.
I did manage to score some tickets for me and my girlfriend (who would become my fiance the next day, and later my wife) to The Daily Show on a trip to New York in 2001, just a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks. It was an interesting experience. Contrary to what we were told earlier by the show's producer, Stewart didn't engage the audience before, during, or after the taping. He spent every second of his downtime on stage sifting through papers without actually reading what was written on any of them - almost as if he was going out of his way to avoid having to talk to us. It was kind of weird, but no biggie. Though I had once been a huge fan, I suppose I had outgrown Stewart by then. Years earlier, his acknowledgement would have been a big deal. As an adult who was now living in the real world, it just didn't seem all that important.
It doesn't surprise me that Jon Stewart's biggest fans over the years have been young people, the demographic that Bill O'Reilly once famously referred to, in an interview with Stewart, as "stoned slackers." His comedy speaks to young people, as it once spoke to me. It's silly and satirical and built off of caricatures, but Stewart's quick wit and sharp delivery makes his words sound like wisdom to a generation that hasn't quite acquired its own wisdom yet.
What has surprised me over his long tenure at The Daily Show is the way he has somehow managed to become a moralistic mouthpiece, in the arena of journalism, for the American Left.
It seems absurd on paper, but in practice, I suppose it really does make sense. By successfully branding himself as a hybrid between a comedian and a political activist, the very left-leaning Stewart (who once described himself, in a moment of candor, as a socialist) has achieved what mainstream journalists and Democratic politicians merely dream of: The ability to promote liberal sensibilities and repeat liberal talking points, in an entertaining way, to a national audience, under the guise of news, without being held accountable for stated falsehoods. And if one can effectively skewer the right in the process, that's even better.
Now, I'm not saying that Jon Stewart actively promotes himself as a legitimate journalist. He doesn't. In fact, in reaction to polls indicating that Americans trust him as an actual news source, he has disregarded the notion as a sad statement on society and the media. On that we agree. That doesn't change the fact, however, that he does indeed present himself as the very type of pundit he often parodies, whenever he recognizes the opportunity and convenience in doing so. The comedy then serves as fall-back position, on the few occasions when he's drawn into a deeper debate.
It occurred to me earlier this week, after Stewart announced his upcoming departure from The Daily Show, just why so many lefty journalists and politicians began revealing, in somewhat uncomfortable terms, the emotional connection they've had with him. They called him a great speaker of truth to power, which is probably the rationale NBC had in mind when they once offered him the hosting chair on Meet the Press. The New York Times even likened Stewart to Edward R. Murrow a few years back. The reality is that Stewart is no such thing, and never has been. Power in this country isn't nearly as partisan as Stewart has long portrayed it to be, and objectivity is something he's always lacked.
The left likes Stewart for same reason I liked him back in the mid 90's. He appeals to their inner-adolescence. They interpret his perfected snark and quick wit as actual wisdom, because it reflects their impulsive, often unexamined worldview. He's the smart-ass who's got their back, and that makes them feel like they're sitting at the cool kids table. It has nothing to do with truth telling.
As a student, I was totally at ease placing this man up on a pedestal. For aging journalists and politicians to do it, and hail him as some kind of crusader for justice... Well, that's just embarrassing, and it reflects poorly on the state of their professions.
I do wish Mr. Stewart the best of luck in his future endeavors. He's a truly gifted comedian and deserves the success he has achieved. He's made me laugh countless times over the years, and for that I'm appreciative.
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