Jon Stewart: How the Funny Man Made a Serious Difference

Jon Stewart: How the Funny Man Made a Serious Difference

REUTERS/Jason Reed

I’ve only ever done one celebrity interview. It was for my college paper in 1997 (The Kentucky Kernel…go Cats!), and it was with a hot young stand-up comedian named Jon Stewart. I was a movie critic who got roped into the job when our entertainment editor took a sick day.

Stewart was in Lexington, Kentucky, to do a standup show to “Save Comedy Central.” Already, he was the network’s white knight. The Daily Show was still in its infancy under Craig Kilborn, South Park was still more than a year away and most of the network’s content was still recycled HBO stand-up specials. Time Warner was going to yank it from the lineup, considering the channel dead weight.

I had been a fan of Stewart’s short-lived MTV show and was more than happy to take the assignment, and I can say that the comedian was as much fun to talk to as you would want and gave me wonderful advice about how as I got older, sleep would become my best friend. He was right.

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When Stewart took over hosting duties for TDS, I was saving to move to New York City and had cut cable out of my life. I remember being happy for Stewart and thinking he’d do a great job. As the initial plaudits came flooding in, I wasn’t surprised.

By 2003, a couple of important things had happened: The second Iraq War was in full swing, and I could afford cable. As the world was becoming more and more surreal, The Daily Show, a comedy show on a basic cable network, became the lone voice of sanity. While “real” journalists worried about losing access to the big interviews and the free buffet tables, Stewart had the courage to say, “Everything that is coming out of your mouth is a lie and we can prove it!” Instead of just letting Ari Fleischer or Dana Perino or whomever get away with a slippery answer to a yes or no question, Stewart observed the absurdity of the need to ask the question in the first place. And he skewered those in the media who played along and put ratings ahead of the truth.

Stewart’s peak, in terms of influence at least, will almost certainly be remembered not as something he did on his own show but for his electric appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in October 2004. Stewart’s star had risen far enough that he was now considered a serious political thinker and was invited to discuss the recent revelations about the Bush administration. Cohosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala expected Stewart to play the role of “angry liberal” in the Kabuki theater production known as “Modern Televised Political Debate.”

Stewart instead came in to call them out on perpetuating the ridiculousness, on playing the serious business of war as if it was a game. Both men (and countless others on both sides) were guilty of putting their political parties’ talking points ahead of what was actually best for the American people. Both men stared at Stewart as if he were the ranting lunatic. The look of total befuddlement on their faces, as if he were speaking gibberish, is the most damning indictment of the format imaginable.

Many thought the election of a Democratic president would be a tough obstacle for Stewart to overcome, and only the most blinded of fans would argue that the show was still as good as it was during the war years, but the financial collapse of 2008 certainly gave him a new target.

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The 2008 election was obviously an emotional moment for the man. Promising an all-night live show until the result was decided, Stewart and Stephen Colbert took co-anchor positions and announced the returns. When the final count was in (far earlier than anyone expected) the relief on his face shone through his comedy façade. Even Colbert was having trouble maintaining his faux-grimace.

But for all of the criticism that he is a liberal mouthpiece, Stewart has not failed to take Obama and his administration to task for the ways that they have failed to deliver on the promise of “Change You Can Believe In.” Guantanamo still stands. Wars continue. The government spies on ordinary citizens.

Over the past couple of years, Stewart had signaled that he was getting ready to throw in the towel. His hiatus to make his directorial debut, Rosewater, was obviously much needed and also showed that the program could continue without him. Recent interviews with longtime friend Bob Odenkirk and actress Patricia Arquette showed a man who was weary and restless, and a man who is desperately afraid of missing the childhood of his kids.

So Stewart’s announcement that he’ll be leaving The Daily Show later this year wasn’t a surprise. After 16 years, though, he has become such a fixture in our lives that it will be weird once he is gone. I wonder if this is what my parents felt like when Johnny Carson retired.

Carson retired at age 66. Stewart is just 52. He could easily take the Seinfeld route and produce a webseries on his own time, or like longtime stand-up comedy nemesis Marc Maron, he could be a successful podcaster. Perhaps he’ll return to stand-up, or take another shot at directing. In the near term, it would surprise me if he does much beyond checking out Mets games and Springsteen concerts.

But Mr. Stewart, if you are reading and looking for suggestions, wouldn’t you, proud New Jersey native that you are, really love to take Chris Christie’s job?

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