I saw one stand-up comedy show during my college career, and I remember one line from it: “It’s called masturbation because I’m the master of it, okay?” It was the type of fare you’d expect from a guy who’d done cameo work on Half Baked and Adam Sandler films.
That was Jon Stewart back in the spring of 2005, the tail-end of his pre-Messianic carpenter phase. Billy the 18-year-old penned a review praising him for steering clear of politics and sticking with bipartisan toilet humor that was in vogue thanks to the ascent of Judd Apatow.
Many of my classmates were disappointed with his stand-up routine. They’d come to have their ideology reaffirmed, to hear truth spoken to power, another notion in vogue at the time. I knew Stewart didn’t share my beliefs, but bought the ticket anyway. I thought he was funny. Show me a man who didn’t snicker when “The Daily Show” debuted “Mess-O-Potamia” or the “Indecision Desk,” and I’ll show you an ideologue. That’s exactly what Stewart became. It’s served him well monetarily, but not culturally.
Apatow’s frat boy toilet humor went out of style, but he quickly replaced it with sorority toilet humor. Stewart replaced his truth-to-power brand with fealty. His most recent gag lines have been about the Republican ability to “undercut our president,” while comparing freshman senators to dictators for not deferring to the Iran deal.
Stewart’s swan song from the host’s chair at “The Daily Show” is being greeted with everything from sentimental hagiography to solipsistic despair, and yes, lamentations from Salon that he “felt like a Messiah,” a “better white savior than any of us had a right to expect.”
“It’s time for us to stop asking more from him than any one person can be expected to give,” Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu writes. Substitute L. Ron Hubbard for Jon Stewart, and you have a John Travolta op-ed.
Jon Stewart Begins Pulling His Punches
When Stewart first rushed onto the scene of renegade, devil-may-care truth-telling, the zeitgeist of the day demanded howling lamentations of soundbite politics. Stewart is the chief pioneer of soundbite humor, the news of the day broken into out-of-context eight-second clips followed by three to five minutes of the host making funny faces and sighing loudly as each one plays.
It’s the comedic equivalent of saying “ugh,” of Popsicle-stick one-liners, only less original. It was built for our SEO-fueled, clickbait-laden age. Stewart may despise the “Watch Jon Stewart DEMOLISH Idaho’s Infamous Homophobic, Bigoted, Sexist, Cis-Gendered Republican County Dog Catcher” headlines that accompany each one of his segments, but those headlines have been routine for nearly a decade and the show has never deviated from its formula.
“The Daily Show” did not become a staple of the zeitgeist’s diet until election day 2004, when Stewart bawled at his desk because voters re-elected George W. Bush. It soon became apparent that Stewart regretted running the video of John Kerry zig-zagging downhill with a voiceover noting the Democratic nominee’s flip-flops: “I was for the Iraq War, now I’m against the Iraq War,” Stewart said. Yes, it was funny, just as funny as his diatribes against Donald Rumsfeld and Bush, but it was too effective. By 2005, Stewart seemed to be pulling his punches, although he still criticized Democrats for their foolishness. Dick Durbin’s comparison of Bush and Hitler inspired a masterful takedown of Godwin’s Law.
“Please stop calling people Hitler when you disagree with them. It demeans you. It demeans your opponent. And, to be honest, it demeans Hitler. He worked too many years, too hard to be that evil to have every Tom, Dick, and Harry come along and say ‘Yeah, you’re being Hitler.’ No. You know who was Hitler—Hitler,” he said.
Election day 2006 marked the turning point. Upon seeing his effectiveness at swinging voters and driving youth turnout, he made a conscious decision to adopt the inverse of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not criticize a Democrat. Never again did he speak truth to power. He catered to it, slamming the powerful for not exercising more power. The withering monologues were replaced with mere sighs at the stupidity of those who didn’t agree with Barack Obama.
Jon Stewart’s Dishonest Editing
If this was commentary, it was WWE commentary complete with fabricated storylines and DEVASTATING PULVERIZATION of straw men. The mask came off when guests began publicizing Stewart’s tactics for tickling the liberal ego. First came Jonah Goldberg’s infamous segment, in which the heroic “Daily Show” editing crew condensed 20 minutes of Stewart getting embarrassed for not bothering to read the book that left him reflexively offended into six minutes of Goldberg shouting.
“Stewart’s complaint echoed all over the Web, radio and TV by other critics, is that books can indeed be judged by the cover. And because the title [“Liberal Fascism”] and cover amount to a giant insult to liberals (only Stewart didn’t use the word ‘insult’), it can be dismissed out of hand,” Goldberg wrote.
At least Goldberg had a studio audience bearing witness to his “Daily Show” experience. Producers routinely lie to pre-taped interview subjects, deny requests for raw footage and witnesses, and dictate to guests the exact narrative Stewart wants on his program.
That’s exactly what Stewart did to former Libertarian presidential nominee Wayne Allen Root when it aired a segment of him bashing the Internal Revenue Service for profiling Tea Party groups while seemingly defending racial profiling that he’d spent his career condemning.
“When the interviewer asked the 3 guests for their opinion of me…all 3 said something nice. The director said, ‘Cut. C’mon guys. This is supposed to be funny. Please say something funny or negative about Wayne. Like ‘rich white guy’ or ‘Fox News guy.’ And then they turned the camera back on…and each guest said something negative about me,” Root said in an email to Reason.
No wonder Stewart hasn’t addressed the month-long Planned Parenthood organ harvesting story—he couldn’t parrot the “heavily edited” line without coming across as a fraud and hypocrite, “The Daily Show’s” only mortal sins.
What Distinguished Jon Stewart from Other Comedians
Stewart stood out amidst the other satirists of his day in one major respect: character. Colbert affected Bill O’Reilly to parody the Right. Sasha Baron Cohen donned stereotypical hip-hop gear to make buffoons out of his guests. Each maintained character, affording guests the opportunity to defend themselves. Stewart granted no such quarter.
Colbert and Cohen left their opponents room to defend themselves against caricatured imbeciles. Stewart edited footage to be as embarrassing as possible and, when called out on it, donned a clown nose to dodge accountability. His self-deprecating cartoon space-man voice and claims of being “just a comedian” were cudgel and shield. His entire shtick is the equivalent of Bruce Jenner insulting someone’s manhood and screaming, “You can’t hit me—I’m a woman.”
Colbert respected the intelligence of his opponents. Sure, liberals would have an easier time handling softballs, but the rules of the game were clear. Not so in Stewart’s world. There was only one rule: demolish your enemies.
In one of Stewart’s most famous interviews, he laid into then-presidential contender Sen. John McCain for courting the support of students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University after calling Falwell an “agent of intolerance” during his 2000 run.
“Are you going into crazy base world?” Stewart asked, condescension dripping. He never recognized that if you sit at the table of politics and you can’t spot the person in “crazy base world,” you’re it. Stewart is the Donald Trump of the Left, only more foolish; at least we all know deep down that Trump doesn’t believe anything he says he believes.
Being Kind to Anthony Weiner Before Being Cruel
Stewart became the political animal that he so reviled when he first decided to pursue his calling as a Very Serious Funnyman. It’s a shame. Fans rightfully point to the 9/11 monologue as the essence of the humanity at the center of the show’s appeal, but I was struck by a far more controversial segment as proof: his reluctance to jump on Anthony Weiner’s Twitter controversy. After weeks of silence, Stewart laid out for viewers why he had avoided addressing this comedic gift from God.
“Here’s my dilemma: One, we, news-based comedy program, are looking at a story about a snapshot that appears to be an ample helping of penis allegedly posted by a congressman whose name is a synonym for penis. I mean for a program like this, the phrase ‘sweet spot’ springs to mind,” he said. “The cons of this story are that this is my friend Anthony…As a comedian this is slam dunk…but as a friend I really hope that this story is untrue.”
The jokes were relatively tame and obvious. He used the occasion to focus more on shrinkage in the chilly waters of the Atlantic during his summers on Dewey Beach with anonymous idealist Anthony Weiner. “It can’t be,” he says, as he cuts to a commercial break.
Conservatives hammered him for dodging the scandal because Weiner was an uber liberal and frequent guest on the program. He engaged in some requisite “doubts about its veracity” because of Andrew Breitbart, but it’s hard to come away from the clip with any other conclusion than that Stewart was genuinely concerned about his friend’s marriage and mental health. Stewart may have helped create the politicized life of comedy in which we are all now held hostage, but he wouldn’t succumb to it then, for the sake of a friendship. It was all rather touching.
Fast-forward to Weiner’s disastrous mayoral candidacy, and we see Stewart the political hack doing what any political hack does: throwing his friend under the bus. “There’s that charm that borders on the edge of dickishness. It’s Anthony Weiner, former congressman turned amateur photographer,” he says, with the trademark spin of his papers before lambasting Weiner for affecting a parody Jamaican accent—rich, given his recent controversy over a Herman Cain impersonation.
I still think Jon Stewart’s capable of being funny. His audience of the past few years has been young people trying to seem sophisticated and 40-somethings trying to feel hip. If anything else, “The Daily Show” provided cougars and their prey something to talk about. Maybe he can return to form in retirement and make jokes about Onanism instead of the intellectual masturbation he’s been peddling for a decade.