He Was Never ‘The Most Trusted Man in America’…And If You Thought He Was, You Missed What He Was Saying
A Reflection on Jon Stewart
In the last few months Jon Stewart one of the most revolutionary comedians in the history of television has been slowly making a return to the medium on the AppleTV series: The Problem With Jon Stewart. (It is typical that he’s drawn a lot of attention to the fact that there really should be a comma between the two statements.)
Stewart left the comedy field back in July of 2015 right around the time the toxicity in our political discourse reached radioactive levels. Ever since he has come back, quite a few people have been criticizing him. Some, understandably, blame him for disappearing right when ‘we’ needed him during the past four years. Some say that his approach of satire with moderation is completely out of touch with the times. And there are quite a few people who have in the last few years, started to call his tenure on The Daily Show a huge part of the problem with political discourse. I’m not entirely surprised by this, but I do think that all of these people missed the point of what Jon Stewart and The Daily Show during his tenure was all about. Which honestly isn’t much of a surprise because they all missed the point when it was going on. So I figured now would be as good a time as any to reflect on The Daily Show under Stewart’s tenure, what it set out to do, and why nobody seemed to get it even now.
First of all, a confession: I was probably Jon Stewart’s number one fan. From pretty much his debut in January of 1999 to his final episode in August of 2015 I think I may have missed all of five episodes. Back in an era where you pretty much had to see an episode or you never would again, The Daily Show was appointment television for me. I always made sure I was at home to see it. It closed out my nights pretty much for fifteen years. I felt the level of comic genius from Stewart — and from the incredible cast of writers and performers he got on the show, from Stephen Colbert to Jon Oliver, Rob Cordray and Ed Helms, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, and well, pretty much everybody who has had a significant role in comedy for the 21st Century — was a group we have never seen before and never will see again.
Now another point. At no time — from the impeachment of Bill Clinton, through Indecision 2000, Mess-O-Potamia, the financial crisis, the Tea Party, and everything that happened during Stewart’s tenure — did I ever take him seriously. I never mistook him for a commentator or his staff for journalists or pundits. They were entertainers, pure and simple. Stewart may have been criticized by many for saying he shouldn’t have been taken seriously because ‘he came on after talking puppets’ — but that was the truth, plain and simple. So why did so many people call him ‘The Most Trusted Man in America?”
Because the post was vacant. We don’t particularly care to remember it, but in the early part of the 21st Century the entire media system was coming undone. The network broadcasters — Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings — were coming to the end of their tenure, either because of controversy, illness or simple demographics. 60 Minutes and 20/20 respected panelists were getting just as old. And cable news has no interest in filling the gap at all — in fact, all of them were moving away from journalism to punditry. What Stewart and The Daily Show was doing was in essence what all the news programs had stopped doing — telling stories of the day and showing why you shouldn’t necessarily trust them. Rather than take a good look at why a ‘comedian’ was more trusted then them, the media decided to focus on Stewart and the show instead. The Daily Show also had a habit of starting each broadcast with one of those slogans that so many of the cable channels did: “The news capital of the world’ or ‘The Most important show…ever” My guess is at one point they used the line: “The most trusted news in America” and no one else got the joke.
In fact, the entire media complex spent Stewart’s entire tenure — and beyond it — never understanding or even acknowledging the main target of his satire: them. Stewart may have scorched political figures regularly — he went after Dick Cheney and W particularly hard — but the recurring characters on The Daily Show night after night was the 24 hour news media culture itself. Every day, he would go after how one side relentless pilloried the other or how they made meaningless political predictions out of thin air or overlooked real stories because they didn’t want to give it any time. And rather than see this as the harsh critique that it was, both sides essentially decided to let it play into their narrative. Conservatives — notoriously thin-skinned and humorless by nature — simply placed Stewart as part of ‘the mainstream media’ that was their enemy. Liberals accepted the joke, but more as part of a need to acknowledge they were hip and part of the gag rather than do anything about it. And the media would put clips of Stewart’s interviews and often scalding critiques of the other side as news rather than take it as a sign that they should do anything about it.
So in that sense, viewing Stewart as an entertainer, the critique of The Daily Show as journalism is as ludicrous as the show itself. Of course the show didn’t take the Florida recount seriously — its job was to provide political satire, not political commentary. And if a situation like the 2000 election didn’t cry out for jokes, I don’t know what would. Yes, things like the Iraq War and everything involving the 2004 election needed to be taken seriously — but by CNN and NBC, not a show that was on a network called Comedy Central. And when you consider Stewart’s view as a moderate, one who tried to stage a rally for togetherness and believe in Obama as unifying as naïve, that’s fine — but don’t criticize him as if he were part of the problem.
Yes I know: Trump. He didn’t take him seriously. Hell, I remember back in 2011 when Trump announced he was hosting a debate and considering running in 2012 and Stewart’s reaction was “Thank you, Jesus.” He didn’t see the danger right up until the end. To that I would add, neither did anyone else. And even if he had, does anyone really believe it would’ve made a difference? I watched everything that unfolded throughout the 2016 primary season. Gaffes that would have destroyed earlier candidates; statements that should have been enough to put anyone else’s campaign on a respirator. The Daily Show didn’t stop pointing out the flaws of Trump after he left — Trevor Noah spent his first few weeks with bits like “Don’t Forget, Donald Trump Wants to Bang his Daughter” Does anyone really think that a well timed barb from Stewart would’ve done anything significant?
Stewart spent his entire career satirizing and demonizing what might be considered ‘the political industrial complex’. This was the target of last year’s Irresistible, which was to be clear, a heavy-handed and mostly unfunny film. But at its center was the fundamental message of what Stewart spent the better part of fifteen years raging against. (Warning: Spoilers below.)
Steve Carell plays a Democratic campaign manager coming off a failed presidential run. He sees a viral speech at a town hall in Wisconsin and runs to the small town to convince the speaker (Chris Cooper) to run for mayor. His arch rival (Rose Byrne, made to look exactly like Ann Coulter) leaps on the incumbent and the campaign quickly balloons into a major media and political frenzy. From the beginning to the end of the movie, Carell’s character is selfish, driven and has no use for anybody — even the candidate — except for what he can do for him. He says the right things to the candidate and his campaign about ‘building something’ and changing things, but we all know he just wants to relaunch his career.
At the climax of the movie, when it is revealed the man’s daughter has manipulated everything so that the town can get the money for the campaign in order to do the rebuilding that actually triggered everything, Carell’s character asks: “Why?” And in typical Stewart fashion, she tells him the truth: politicians only come here every four years, only because this is a swing state and make the same promises over and over. She tells him it’s exhausting and demoralizing. He takes this in and then says: “I thought you and I have something.” Utterly incredulous, she says: “I’m 28. In what world is that okay?” Carell’s character just says: “DC. LA. Parts of Dallas. New York…”
But even this isn’t the point, nor is it aftermath when we see that the ‘hicks’ of this town are intelligent people who’ve been putting up a front. No it’s the pre-credit sequence that makes it clear. We saw a flashforward where it seems Carell’s character has left politics to help the citizens of the town do the rebuilding it’s been planning. The credits go up… and we see it’s a fantasy. In reality Carell and Byrne’s character have begun a very intense romance (clearly built on hate sex) that is the talk of ‘DC, LA, Parts of Dallas and New York.) Neither has learned anything from the entire movie and is back to business as usual. The point is driven home even harder when we see a pundit driven show discussing the fallout of the election and everything that has happened. The reporter asks hypothetically if there’s clearly a lesson that we as a business need to learn… then says: “What am I saying? We have to leave it there.” The point, I grant you is far from subtle, but honestly after fifteen years of being subtler on The Daily Show, one can hardly blame Stewart for being so heavy handed.\
Soon enough I will begin watching Stewart’s new show, because I have missed him. As for those of you who criticize him for what you think he did, I can say only this: Don’t blame the messenger because you didn’t like — or understand — the message. The situation was messed up before he came along and it was worse when he left, but none of that is Stewart’s fault. His job was to make us laugh and then try to warn us about what we were doing. Are we to blame him that he succeeded so well in the former and that we utterly ignored the latter?