It started as a joke. Somewhere in the midst of the George W. Bush administration, people started saying that Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” was the best and most trustworthy news source on television. The butt of that joke was cable news, which by the mid-2000s had hardened into pure partisanship. Many people, mostly (but not only) on the Left, came to view Stewart as the honest answer, the straight shooter who could scoff at, and speak truth to power.
By 2008, it wasn’t a joke any more. The polls and surveys started coming out, The New York Times suggested he was the most trusted man in America, and there were numbers to back it up. For the first time, a comedian had become one of the nation’s most prominent sources for news. But how did this happen? How did a comedy show come to not only augment so many people’s understanding of politics and events, but to frame it? Or is that really what happened at all?
The Relationship Between Truth and Humor
To understand the unique phenomenon that is Stewart and “The Daily Show,” it’s important to understand that humor is often about exposing truth. The old adage goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” But in fact that adage cuts both ways. It’s not just that truth makes things humorous, but also that humor makes things seem true.
When somebody makes you laugh, you share an intensely intimate moment with him, arguably as intimate as you can have with your clothes on. And that creates trust. This is why, when we look through the history of political debates, the most memorable moments are the funny ones; “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “The ’80s want their foreign policy back,” or Bush’s smirky nod at Al Gore’s attempt at being imposing. Each of these moments created greater trust in the guy who scored the joke. But it also, and in some ways unfairly, cast the butt of the joke as an unlikeable fool. Stewart excels at making people appear to be unlikeable fools.
By the mid to late ’00s, “The Daily Show” had a comedy writing room that could be spoken of in the same breath as Sid Ceaser’s half a century before. Caesar had Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. Stewart had Steve Carell, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert. Just as Caesar was never the funniest guy in the room or on the screen, neither is Stewart. Stewart is an adequate straight man, wrinkling his nose at the absurd antics of the modern America that serves as his comedy partner. But the moments of outright, prolonged laughter almost always belong to his correspondents. Their comic brilliance allowed Stewart to earn a living by warming up his audience with middling, mean-spirited jokes that made them gently chuckle at how morally superior they are.
Jon Stewart’s Politics of Snark
Stewart’s style and delivery are directly derivative of Dennis Miller’s work on “Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, but with an important difference. Miller would land a joke with his trademark laugh and head bobbing, reminding audiences how silly it all was. Stewart lands with stern or confused glares, almost a terror at how horrible our society has become. For American progressives, who look at this country like an anorexic looks into the mirror, seeing nothing but flaws, Stewart was an enabler, pointing out how fat their society is, and how stupid anyone who can’t see that must be.
Metaphors of violence course throughout the history of comedy. Killing, slaying, or destroying an audience are all classic parlance. But Stewart rarely destroyed an audience; far more often he destroyed the object of his scorn. If Stewart leaves a legacy to journalism (and I’m not entirely sure that he does) that is probably it. Hardly a day goes by now without social media announcing that some journalist has destroyed some other journalist. On Twitter you can almost hear the drinks being guzzled as afternoon turns to evening and professional news people try to outdo each other with snark. It is unfair to say that Stewart is responsible for the coarseness of today’s discourse, but in many ways he does embody it.
In today’s media, it is not enough to prove that somebody is wrong about an event or issue. They must be proven laughably wrong, absurd, so wildly out of touch with reality as to be an object of mirthful scorn. It is not entirely by happenstance that the notion of Stewart as some kind of actual journalist came in 2008.That was exactly the moment when phrases like “if you believe that, I really can’t talk to you” started making their way into our lives. The partisan gulf, from the cliffs of which we scream at each other, grew wider when Stewart attained the mantle of legitimate newsman. Instead of worrying that those who disagree with us would discredit our ideas, we came to worry that we would be mocked like a middle schooler wearing the wrong color on Thursday.
The Relationship Between Jon Stewart and the Media
But far from protecting its territory by reminding people that Stewart is in no sense of the word a journalist, the news media embraced the idea. He was bringing millennials into the national conversation, after all; and where there are millennials, there is money. The myth that “The Daily Show” was the best place to go to understand what was happening in the world grew. At the same time, legitimate news began to sound more and more like Stewart’s preachy bullying.
This is likely a case of correlation, not causation, which is why I am doubtful that Stewart has left any real mark on journalism. He has been the perfect poster child for the smug age of outrage we live in. Real conversations have become harder and harder, because who wants to talk to someone who is pointing and laughing at them? Worse, many real journalists and far too many people at large have no idea that is what they are doing.
This is how so many people have come to believe that Stewart is somehow nonpartisan. This belief boggles the minds of the majority of conservatives. After all, when Stephen Colbert launched the “conservative” counterpoint to “The Daily Show” he was obviously playing a clown. Stewart never was. In fact, the depth of Stewart’s sincerity was on display for his entire tenure at “The Daily Show”—perhaps never more so than at his bizarre rally at the National Mall which is still one of the stranger events in recent American political history.
When rumors circulated recently that NBC News had seriously considered putting Stewart at the helm of “Meet the Press,” something clicked. The fanciful debates about how and to what extent “The Daily Show” was changing the news basically shut down. From almost every corner there was a sense that this had gone too far. That an important news-gathering organization had even considered the possibility putting Stewart in charge honestly seemed to shake the industry. Perhaps it was at that moment that Stewart’s show ran out of steam and had to go. The parody had almost become the real, the map had almost become the terrain.
There is much to celebrate about Stewart’s time at “The Daily Show.” He managed a successful and often very funny television show for 17 years. In that time, the show became what the “Tonight” show used to be for young comedians: a chance to grow chops and get exposure. He helped to usher in the age of the viral comic video clip and did much to diversify the American comedy landscape. In satirizing the news, Stewart understood and exemplified so much of what is broken about it. But for all his successes, it is important to understand one thing very clearly. Jon Stewart was never a newsman.