Jon Stewart and the Burden of History
He’s not so funny anymore, and it’s not only because he’s come to take himself seriously. It’s because in the Obama era, we’re starting to see the price of refusing to stand for anything.
By Tom Junod, Esquire Magazine, October 2011
Published in the October 2011 issue, on sale any day now
They gather under the tall Jon Stewart. They gather under the Jon Stewart who takes up the whole side of a building on Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan and is about three stories high. They gather under the Jon Stewart who has his hands clasped, his chin lifted, his eyes narrowed, his lips drawn in a tight line. They gather under the Jon Stewart who is professionally skeptical and won’t take any bullshit. They gather under the Jon Stewart who is imitating a self-serious news anchor and who, while imitating a self-serious news anchor, has this message: “For Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, go one block down and take a right.” They gather under the Jon Stewart who is funny and who, with his dark backswept hair set off by graying temples, is a few years younger than the Jon Stewart of today.
They are mostly young themselves, college kids who sit on the sweltering summer sidewalk when they’re not pressed against the stanchions that have been set up to organize ticket holders waiting to see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. They are not all young, however, and the oldest among them seem genuinely surprised when this gavone in a black Daily Show T-shirt comes out to the sidewalk and begins, like, yelling at them — when he tells them they’ll have to submit to a TSA-like screening before they go inside, that if they get caught using their cell phones, their cell phones will be taken away, and that they won’t be able to use the bathroom once they’re in the studio. “I guess they have to screen for conservatives,” says one guy who’s come all the way from California, trim and gray-haired, wearing a T-shirt and chinos.
“But conservatives are so much better at taking orders than we are,” says his wife, before changing her mind in light of the impasse over the debt ceiling. “Well, some of them. I wish the ones in Congress were better at it…”
In fact, everybody on line is accomplished at taking orders and being civilized and compliant. They understand that somebody who takes the stands that Jon Stewart takes — who, in the words of the gray-haired guy, “is not afraid to piss people off, especially powerful people” — needs tight security. They are quiet and docile as they are corralled into manageable little groups, which is why it’s weird that they keep getting hectored about their cell phones and their bladders until the studio doors finally open and a thick-necked woman with short hair and big red-framed eyeglasses that look like a souvenir from her work as an extra with The Rocky Horror Picture Showemerges with one last warning. “All right,” she says, “this is a comedy show, so we want to keep it light. But if we catch you fucking up, we will take your shit. All right? If we catch you using your cell phones, we will take them away. This is private property. So if we catch you taking a picture of the studio, even on the way out, we will take your camera and delete your photos. Got that? All right, now go in and have a great time…”
And they do, they do. They file in very quietly, into the pulsating blue studio that’s a reasonable facsimile of the studios over at Fox News, and nobody says how strange it is that the spiel you hear before you’re allowed to see Jon Stewart just happens to be exactly the same spiel you hear before you’re allowed to walk through the barbed-wire gates of —
Jon Stewart The Daily Show
Ethan Miller/Comedy Central/Getty Images
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are happy to have as our guest Jon Stewart. We all know Jon — he’s the comedian and media critic who for the last ten years has pretty much decided who’s a dick and who’s a douchebag in our politics and in our culture, all without ever himself coming across as a dick or a d —
Wait a second (hand to imaginary earpiece) — excuse me, folks. What’s that? What about the Chris Wallace interview?
Well, what about it? Okay, so a few months ago, Stewart went to Fox News and gave an interview to the Fredo of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Chris Wallace. Of course he did. That’s why we love him — that’s why he’s been able to transform himself from late-night comedian to liberal conscience. He does what nobody else does. He goes into the lion’s den and does that thing — that Jon Stewart truth-to-power thing. He manages to be the voice of reason while still being funny, manages to be sharply critical while still being affable, manages to be…
Wait. He wasn’t funny? He wasn’t affable? He kind of spoke power to truth when Wallace dared to point out that Stewart seems to crave political influence? He sort of pulled rank on Wallace, and was smug and condescending without bothering to be funny at all? He even started saying, “Are you suggesting that you and I are the same?…” in the same tone he would have used if Wallace had gotten a little schmutz on Stewart’s shirt?
O-kay. Well, Stewart had his reasons, I’m sure. After all, he’s really not the same as Wallace, is he? I mean, Stewart’s the coolest guy in the room, any room, by definition, while Chris Wallace wouldn’t look cool next to the guys in hats riding little cars at a Shriner’s Convention. He’s the very embodiment of the self-important yet dim-witted — or is that dim-witted yet self-important? — media creature whom Stewart has made a living schooling over the last tumultuous decade. So if Jon Stewart can’t be smug and contemptuous and superior with Chris Wallace, who can he be smug and contemptuous and superior with? It’s not like he came right out and said he’s betterthan Chris Wallace…
Oh. Wait. He sorta did? He said, “What I do is much harder than what you do”? But just last year didn’t he tell Rachel Maddow that what he did was less honorable than what she did? Ah, well, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little talk-show hosts. It’s not like he started comparing himself to, like, Mark Twain or someone like that…
No! He did that too? He actually asked Wallace, “What am I at my highest aspiration? Who am I? Am I Edward R. Murrow or Mark Twain?” And then he told Wallace: “I’ve existed in this country forever. There have been people like me who have satirized the political process… I’ve existed forever. The box that I exist in has always been around.”
Come on! He did not say that! He’s Jon Stewart, for God’s sake. And Jon Stewart did not go onFox News Sunday and say that He Is Music, and He Writes the Songs…
He was pretty damned smart. He was pretty damned funny. And in the wake of 9/11 he did something amazing: He taught America how to make jokes — hell, how to laugh, even with a mass grave still smoldering in downtown New York and America just beginning to embark on the series of insanely unexamined moral misadventures that persist to this day. He’d taken over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in 1999, and by 2004 the language he crafted night after night with correspondents like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert — the language of “fake news” and “truthiness” — had become strangely reassuring, especially to a generation that got its news from TV fearmongers and Internet hysterics rather than from the responsible drudges and drones of daily newspapers. Kids who couldn’t sleep at night worrying that their president was a bad guyand that their country was doing bad things could now rest easy knowing that their president was just a dick, and that their country, while stupid, was still essentially innocent. It was like you could get upset about what was going on but still live your life, because there was Jon Stewart right before bedtime, showing you how to get upset entertainingly, how to give a shit without having to do anything about it. He denied having a message — admitting to a “point of view” but not an “agenda” — but of course he did, and it was this: that life goes on, and that politics may change but stupid always stays the same. He had a great long-suffering mug that could have gotten laughs in silent movies, but underneath the sad eyes with the dark circles he was an optimist, and by saying incessantly that he was just a comedian, that he was just trying to make people laugh, he was giving not just himself but also his audience exactly what they needed most: anout.
But now let’s roll the clip of him on Crossfire in 2004. No, not that one — not the one everybody’s seen already, of him calling bow-tied conservative cohost Tucker Carlson a dick. The clip that we want is the clip of him before the show, talking to the guy who’s ostensibly on his side, the liberal in the old Crossfire equation, Paul Begala. Stewart was in the makeup room. (“You don’t want to see him without makeup,” says one of his former employees. “He’s not just sallow, he’s the color of a manhole cover.”) Begala dropped by for a little ice-breaking, and also “because Stewart had done something for the troops and I wanted to thank him,” Begala says now. “And I remember thinking: He’s really nervous. And it struck me as kind of weird, because he was the host of his own show, and was much more experienced at this kind of thing than I was.”
What Begala didn’t know, of course, was that Stewart was nervous in the way that Michael Corleone was nervous when he walked out of the bathroom of the Italian restaurant with more than his dick in his hand. He’s a great reflexive comic who’s made his living reacting — or appearing to react while scripting his reactions — on The Daily Show, but on this day, he, Jon Stewart, had Something to Say. “I thought he was going to push his clever book that had just come out,” Begala says. “But he wanted to be more serious. He came out and started tearing into us. It was funny and pointed, and it was great TV before the whole thing got derailed and the name-calling started.”
We’ve all seen the clip a few million times… Well, millions of us have seen it a few times, making the video of Jon Stewart’s guest appearance on CNN’s Crossfire one of the most transmittedvideos of all time — indeed, one of the inspirations behind the creation of YouTube. And so we’re all familiar with some of the greatest hits: Stewart calling Begala and Carlson … [pause] partisan hacks, Stewart telling Begala and Carlson that they’re…[pause] hurting the country, Stewart pleading with Begala and Carlson to … [pause] please stop. Was he kidding? No, he was not — as Carlson remembers, he was “totally sincere, and in full flower.” And that’s what makes it funny, at least at first, until Carlson, flinching and desperate, with his voice an octave higher than when he started, says, “I thought you were going to be funny,” and Stewart looks at him with dead, we’re-all-part-of-the-same-hypocrisy eyes and says, “No. I’m not going to be your monkey.”
So there it is: No jokes for you. And the crowd erupts, thinking that he’s made the ultimate sacrifice — for them.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Now look at him. It’s seven years later, and he’s aged like a president. He’s been graying for years, but now he’s gone gray, and a transformation seems to have taken place. He’s forty-eight years old. He has a wife and two young kids whose lives he worries about missing because he stays so late and works so hard. Last year, when he did that thing, that Jon Stewart thing, thatrally in Washington, D. C., he looked like he was starting to, like, fill out — his suit looked a little small on him as he made his big valedictory speech — but now he’s gaunt, and his face is sort of bladelike, collecting itself around the charcoal axis of his eyes, nose, and mouth. Still, he’s jacked. The whole studio is. You don’t have any choice at The Daily Show. For one thing, the music gets louder and louder as you wait before finally reminding you where Stewart’s from with a climactic rendition of Born to Run. For another, there’s a tummler, a warm-up guy who bounds around telling you that you might laugh to yourself while watching Jon Stewart at home, you might smile and chuckle at the aperçus, you might silently congratulate yourself for getting the jokes, but you’re not at home anymore, and here you have a responsibility — you’re the laugh track. “Do you want to be on TV! Do you want to meet Jon Stewart! Then you better get loud…”
And now here he is. The man did stand-up for years, and in the studio you can actually see it on him, because whereas on television he clings to his desk like it’s an iron lung (former writers say that you know a bit is doomed if it requires him to get up from behind it), here he actually stands up and goes out to the audience to answer questions. And he’s a kibitzer — it’s not Plato’sSymposium, folks. The first question is “What’s your daily routine?” and Stewart answers as he’s been answering since Destiny’s Child was together: “Jazzercise.” The second question is “Which one of the animals on my T-shirt would you like to be?” and Stewart responds with a question of his own: “Is there a correct answer to that?” And even when a young woman with short hair and glasses and a faded cause on her T-shirt asks if “our greatest media critic” has actually had an impact on the way the media does business, he instantaneously cocks his chin, sucks in his cheeks, and narrows his eyes until he looks like a wizened version of the man whose image is emblazoned on the wall outside; then he deepens his voice confidentially and says, “Well, look who’s carrying the NPR tote bag.” Of course, he denies having an impact — “the satirist depends on shame, and everyone knows that our culture has become shameless” — but when somebody calls out, “But you killed Crossfire!” he says, “No, I didn’t. Crossfire was already dead…”
And there it is again, that denial of power upon which his power depends. It’s strange, isn’t it: One of the fastest and most instinctive wits in America feeling it necessary to go on explaining himself again and again; a man who lives to clarify resorting to loophole; the irrepressible truth-teller insisting on something that not one person of the two hundred watching his show in the studio — never mind the millions who will watch on television — can possibly believe.
(Obama) Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images; (O’Reilly) Peter Kramer/AP Photo
He is only one man, after all. It may even be said — if we may say so — that he is just a man. May we? We may, because that’s how Stewart likes it. But we all know that some men become more than men by how they respond to their times. Such a man is Jon Stewart. He has stepped up. He might have started out as a great comedian, but when he saw that the times were no laughing matter, he became also a great man. He transformed himself, and so was himself transformed. Even as the media and politicians he mocked so relentlessly lost their moral compass, he found his. He saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it; saw his old friend Anthony Weiner’s penis and tried to make jokes about it…
Sorry. It’s just that when you’re talking about Jon Stewart, you’re never just talking about Jon Stewart. You’re invoking the Jon Stewart narrative — the collective fantasy about Jon Stewart — and it leads to all sorts of inappropriate historical comparisons. You can even play the Jon Stewart Game, in which you start telling his story and see how long it takes you to compare him to someone he should feel really uncomfortable being compared to. See, he really is just a man, and a man from New Jersey at that. The township he’s from, Lawrence, is right between Princeton and Trenton — right at the intersection of smart and tough. He’s always been a ballsy little guy, with a feeling for the little guy. Before he started doing stand-up, he used to tend bar at a joint with a steel door and no windows, in the back of a liquor store on the Trenton side; you see that place, you know that here’s a guy used to living by his wits. So he moved to New York — where else is a guy like that gonna go? Now he’s a real New Yorker, which means he doesn’t take any bullshit and at the same time bullshit doesn’t bother him, depending on the circumstance. But when Congress started jacking those 9/11 first responders around, stalling on the bill that promised them benefits: That bothered him. So he found his opportunity and took his shot, started telling preposterous old biddies like Mitch McConnell to just pass the fucking thing. And they passed it, last December. And you know what he got in return, from all the grateful firemen in New York? A birthday party for one of his kids in the firehouse in his neighborhood in New York, with a birthday cake in the shape of a fire truck. And you know what else he got? A story in The New York Times that compared him to Edward R. Murrow…
See? It never takes long, when you play the Jon Stewart Game. But hey, it’s not his fault. He saw the Edward R. Murrow thing in the Times, was smart enough to say “What the…?” He made sure to remind us that he’s a comedian, for crying out loud. He makes funny faces and fart jokes. But here’s the thing: When he protests that he’s a comedian, he’s not escaping from the collective fantasy. He’s feeding it. The collective fantasy, you see, is not just about Jon Stewart, it’s about America, especially liberal America, and its need for redeemers to rise out of its ranks. Jon Stewart’s just a comedian the way gunslingers in old westerns are really peaceable sodbusters who hate all that bloodshed and all that killin’ but finally have to strap on them six-guns and march on into town. Heck, he’d go back to telling jokes if he could, but he can’t, not with hired guns like Tucker Carlson and Jim Cramer around…
Stewart interviewed Cramer in 2009, a few months after the financial collapse that the bellicose CNBC swami claimed never to have seen coming. Stewart found footage of him encouraging the very kinds of manipulation and cynical double-dealing blamed for the crisis, and showed it to him. The resulting interview was as pivotal to Stewart’s rise to the position of national conscience as his beatdown of Carlson and Begala on Crossfire, but it made Stewart and some of his writers uncomfortable, because once again they were being praised for the wrong things. He was and is uneasy with the interviews on The Daily Show, anyway — he can’t control them like he can control the comedy, and a grand jury watching them would definitely have enough evidence to indict him on charges of journalism. But the Cramer interview led his audiences to expect blood, when that’s not what he’s about, dammit. He didn’t have anything against Cramer, but Cramer tried to submitto Stewart, and his submission only elicited a coliseum roar from the studio audience. The interview ended with Cramer curled up like a guy who just didn’t want to get Tasered again.
Because Stewart was out to make the poor bastard recant. He said, “Maybe we could remove the ‘financial expert’ and ‘In Cramer We Trust’ [from Cramer’s promo] … and I could go back to making fart noises and funny faces.” Cramer was unable to bleat out anything more than a weirdly grateful “Okay!” He even offered Stewart his hand. But my Bubbe has a colorful expression for what Stewart was offering, and it’s this:
Stewart isn’t just being a bully here. He is being disingenuous, and he knows it. Worse, he’s tapping into the collective fantasy without knowing it. He’s the gunslinger saying he’s going back to the farm while at the same time putting notches in his belt. More precisely, he’s the presumptive Edward R. Murrow saying that he’ll go back to comedy once he cleans up journalism. But he can’t go back. He can’t go back to the pleasures of fart jokes and funny faces — the pleasures of comedy — because he’s experienced the higher pleasure of preaching to weirdly defenseless stiffs like Jim Cramer. He’s saying once again that he’s outgrown comedy and is no longer a comedian. But he’s not saying what he actually is, because then he’d be judged. And Jon Stewart, to a degree unique in the culture, exists outside the realm of judgment.
Was Jon Stewart being a dick when he was subjecting Jim Cramer to enhanced interrogation? Sure he was. He was also being a dick when he called Tucker Carlson a dick, and when he was preaching to Chris Wallace. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. What matters is that even when Stewart’s a dick, he is never the dick. It is Stewart’s unique talent for coming across as decent and well-meaning when he’s bullying and hectoring and self-righteous. And this is because his talent is not just for comedy and not just for media criticism or truth-telling; it’s for being — for remaining — likable.
Now, you have to understand Jon Stewart is just like everybody else: He can be a dick. His father took off when he was a kid, leaving a hole in his heart approximately the old man’s shoe size. He’s damaged and is capable of doing damage in return, especially in close quarters. There are plenty of Daily Show staffers, present and former, who love and revere their boss for his difficult brilliance. There are also plenty — mostly on the former side — who have been, well, fucked up by him and his need to dominate. When he arrived at The Daily Show in 1999, its humor was goofy and improvisational, based on the interplay between the fake-news host and the fake-news correspondents and dependent on whimsy and happenstance. But Stewart knew what he wanted right away, and it wasn’t that. He wanted the show to be more competitive, almost in a news-gathering sense, and he wanted it to have a point of view, which happened to be his own. There are writers and producers from the first five years of the show, both male and female, who are described as “battered wives”; hell, there are people who used to work for him who are scared to talk about him because they’re scared of not being able to work again. And before he pushed out the show’s cocreator, he notoriously threw a newspaper at her in a story meeting and then, according to a staffer, apologized to her later with the words “Sorry, that was the bad Jon — I try not to let him out…”
We don’t have the clip for that. And that’s because it’s not the point — not of Jon Stewart, and certainly not of his comedy. The point of Stewart’s comedy, even before it became political, was that it was the comedy of a smart-ass from Jersey who knows he can be a dick but who is striving for decency, even when he’s being funny … or, hell, by being funny. “The genius of Jon’s comedy is its vulnerability,” says Wendy Liebman, the comic who opened for Stewart right before he started doing his first talk show at MTV in 1993. “He lets you in. And so you wind up empowering him so that he can empower you.” He has always been able to get the audience on his side. Sure, there’s a bad Jon. He’s human, ain’t he? But he’s also a guy who’s very clearly trying to do the right thing, who’s trying to live up to the best iteration of himself, who wants to be more or less what he’s become. He’s a child of divorce who’s become a devoted husband, a doting dad, and a slave to two pit bulls. He’s a vulnerable guy who’s become amazingly …
Invulnerable. Unassailable. Unimpeachable. The most sacred of liberalism’s sacred cows. The man whom a certain percentage of the country doesn’t just agree with but agrees on, more than they agree on anything, more than they agree on health care or President Obama. He protests, often, that he “doesn’t have a constituency”; what he does have, though, is a consensus, a presumption of unanimity anytime he walks into a room, unless that room is the greenroom at Fox News. Bill Maher is an atheist; Jon Stewart is a humanist, and by his humanism he’s become the strangest of things, the influential comedian, the admired comedian, the eminent comedian, the comedian who feels it necessary, always, to disavow his power. He’s been saying for ten years that he’s just a guy in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs; but he never gets spitballs thrown at him in return. He mocks without being mocked; he parodies without being parodied. It’s not that he can’t be; there are guys on Jon Stewart’s staff who do a wicked Jon Stewart. But in all the years he’s been doing The Daily Show — in all the years he’s been scribbling on that notepad, closing that mouth around his fist in spasms of mock feeling, and emitting that Olympian whinny — he’s never been parodied on Saturday Night Live. Why? Because according to Jim Downey, the longtime SNL writer who last year wrote the great Keith Olbermann parody for Ben Affleck, “you can only parody comedians when they’re not funny. Jon’s funny. Plus, we all like him.”
And there it is: Funny! Likable! Smart! And therefore the one indispensable figure of the cultural and political Left, the love child of the Boss and Tina Fey. Like a lot of other comedians, he makes a living making fun of people; unlike a lot of others, if he makes fun of you … well, you should be so lucky that such a nice man as Jon Stewart is making fun of you. And so when he made fun of Willie Geist on Morning Joe — a great bit that focused on Geist’s face while Mark Halperin was apologizing for calling the president “a dick” — Geist had no choice but to call the mockery “brilliant.” “You just have to throw up your hands and go with it,” Geist says. “You definitely don’t want to trade with him.”
And if you do? Well, he made fun of Rick Sanchez, the erstwhile CNN anchor, so relentlessly that Sanchez, he just couldn’t take it no more. He called Stewart “a bigot” in an interview, and when the interviewer reminded him that Stewart is Jewish, said, “Very powerless people. He’s such a minority…” He got fired the next day. But here’s the thing: Sanchez, in an e-mail, says that Stewart called him and said, “Sanchez, I made fun of you because you’re the one I liked.” And then in his speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, Stewart made sure to say that Sanchez was a victim not of himself or of, well, Jon Stewart, but of the media’s insatiable need for conflict. So in his e-mail Sanchez wrote this: “I think Jon Stewart is misunderstood by a lot of people, and I say that as someone who misunderstood him myself. There aren’t two Jon Stewarts. There isn’t a ‘real’ Jon Stewart and another hiding behind comedy… It’s all the same person. It’s all Jon Stewart. And it’s all real…If anything, Jon is consistent. He’s an equal-opportunity omedian and satirist who has a simple, unified message and focus: He is opposed to extremes. He’s opposed to the extremes that exist in our political system, culture, and discourse. He’s opposed to extreme positions, statements, and policies. He’s opposed to extreme politicians and pundits…”
With all due respect: Rick Sanchez was destroyed by Jon Stewart. He just got his comeback gigdoing color commentary for the football team at Florida International University. He lost his job and his career. He doesn’t have to say that he’s the dick and express his gratitude to Stewart for reeducating him. He’d even be forgiven for being pissed off. But he’s bigger than that, because Stewart’s bigger than that — because Jon Stewart is a good man trying to be better…no, a good man trying to be better by making us all better.
“When I tell people that I used to work for Jon, the thing they ask, all the time, is ‘Oh, is he nice?'” says Stacey Grenrock Woods, a former Daily Show correspondent who is now Esquire’s venerable sex columnist. “Now, I would never think of Jon Stewart as ‘nice.’ He’s a comedian, and comedians aren’t always particularly nice people. But these people look so hopeful, and it’s obviously really important to them. So I always say, ‘Yes, he’s very nice.’ And they always say, ‘Oh, thank God. I don’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t.’ ”
Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/AP Images
Of course, he doesparody himself sometimes. Last year, with Rachel Maddow, he even parodied himself parodying himself. It was pretty brilliant — Stewart and Maddow against a black background, in solemn imitation of Stewart’s own appearance with Charlie Rose…
Wait a second. Run that clip again. You mean … that wasn’t self-parody? You mean even when he made gentle fun of himself for being pompous, he really was being pompous, like a fighter who starts shaking his head right after he gets tagged, thereby proving that he is what he says he’s not? You mean he wasn’t even kidding around when he explained the Rally to Restore Sanity to Maddow by saying that “in twelve years, I’d earned a moment to tell people who I was”…?
Okay, then: He’s being sincere. But what is he saying here? How has he earned his moment? And why does he want it? He’s always gotten pissed off when people say he’s “just” a comedian and that he “just” tells jokes; they never say that musicians “just” sing songs or that writers “just” write stories. They’re not just jokes; they’re him, and that’s what has made The Daily Showmatter. That’s what has made Jon Stewart matter. So why does he suddenly feel the need to reveal the “real” Jon Stewart so acutely that he organizes a rally in Washington, D. C., for that very purpose?
Because make no mistake: That’s why the Rally to Restore Sanity took place. Sure, it was an answer to the rally that Stewart’s right-wing counterpart Glenn Beck organized on the Mall two months earlier just as surely as “Sweet Home Alabama” was an answer to “Southern Man.” And sure, it was held on October 30, 2010, three days before the midterm elections that would decide whether we’d have a presidency or a lingering hostage crisis. And sure, two hundred thousand people showed up. So it had the appearance of a political rally, the appearance of an event that meant something. And it did, it did — to Jon Stewart.
He even gave a speech, as Jon Stewart. Not as Jon Stewart the comedian but as the Jon Stewart his viewers discern beneath the comedy; not as the Jon Stewart who can be mercilessly funny but as the Jon Stewart who looks like such a nice man. He had conceived of the Rally to Restore Sanity as an extension of The Daily Show — as a translation of The Daily Show into the form of “the rally,” in the same way that his books are a translation of The Daily Show into the form of “the book.” It would be another parody, but with the participation of a cheering throng wearing funny hats and carrying funny signs. It was supposed to be a joke … except that it didn’t feel like a joke on the day it happened. There were so many people, and they didn’t “believe” in him in a high-concept way — they believed in him in the same way that Beck’s multitudes believed in Beck. They wanted something from him. For years, he had clung to what he calls the “text” of The Daily Show — the rigorous maintenance of “false authority.” Well, now they wanted the subtext. They wanted the authority he exercised to be genuine. They wanted to give him exactly what he thought he’d earned — his moment…
And so he took it. He even changed clothes. All day long, he’d worn a sweatshirt and a red-white-and-blue warm-up jacket emblazoned with stars and stripes. Now he put on a suit and a tie and stepped out of — and forever into — the collective fantasy. You see, it was all true. He wasn’t “patriotic”; he was patriotic. He wasn’t “serious”; he was serious — indeed, a comedian whose biggest moments were all serious, from the speech he gave after 9/11 to his appearance onCrossfire to his interview with Jim Cramer. He was also smart. He was also sincere. And most important, he was nice. He didn’t make fun of Rick Sanchez; he said that Rick Sanchez had been victimized by the media’s need for constant conflict. He didn’t attack Republicans for their extremism; he said that both parties were equally to blame. And he articulated a conciliatory vision of America rooted in his experience as a Jersey boy who grew up to be a New York man — a vision of America rooted in his experience of watching four lanes of traffic winnowed into two at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The cars have to take turns, he said — “one from the left, one from the right, concession by concession, ‘You go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go’ … and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”
Did he do what he wanted to do? Did he come out and say who he really was? You’re damn right he did — he was like a guy at a karaoke bar singing that Goo Goo Dolls song on his girlfriend’s birthday. That’s why he was giddy afterward, at the press conference he gave with the rally’s cohost, Stephen Colbert. And that’s why he was so surprised when Christiane Amanpour asked if he and Colbert “accept” the notion that they were now “players in our civil society.” Players? Didn’t she get it? Didn’t anyone? Three days before a crucial election, Jon Stewart had stood in America’s most symbolic public space and given a speech to two hundred thousand people. The speech wasn’t about his need to be a player or his need for power or his need for influence. It wasn’t about getting out the vote or telling people to vote in a certain way. It was about Jon Stewart — about his need for another kind of out. For years, his out had been his comedy. Now it was his sincerity — his evenhandedness, his ability to rise above politics, his goodness. And three days later, when the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms, he pretty much proved his point. He was no player. He had no political power. He’d proven he was beyond all that by presiding over the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history.
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“Welcome to The Daily Show. Good show tonight… Our guest tonight is NPR’s Juan Williams… [hand to imaginary earpiece] Really? He’s not there anymore? Well, I’ll definitely ask him about that…”
Oh, well: another night, another show about Fox News. It’s been like that, over at The Daily Show, ever since Obama was elected. Stewart just doesn’t have the material he used to have when George W. Bush was in power, nor the nightly foil. (Audience members still ask him to “do Bush” during the introductory Q&A.) He’s been accused of making halfhearted jokes about Obama in an attempt to keep the show ideologically balanced, but that’s not the problem, not really; the problem is that Democrats, with their perpetual disarray, are not as funny as Republicans, with their reality-bending unity, and that Stewart is left to nurse what is probably the most potent comedy killer of all: disappointment. According to one former writer, the creative atmosphere at The Daily Showhas gotten “doomier” since it became clear that Obama wasn’t going to fulfill his promise — and that Jon Stewart was not in a position either to help or to savage him. “You can see the strain in his interviews,” the writer says. “It used to be, ‘Hey, we’re a comedy show.’ Now it’s, ‘What we do is so hard.’ And it is hard. One of the reasons I finally left is that we were running out of targets. I was like, ‘Do we really want to make fun of Fox & Friends again? Really?'”
Indeed, there are days when Stewart himself says, “No Fox today — let’s go after a more elusive target.” But then, Fox is always there, and Stewart has formed a symbiotic relationship with it. He goes on O’Reilly’s show, O’Reilly goes on his; he devotes a broadcast to a parody of Beck’s farewell from Fox, Beck complains on his last show that Stewart is only funny because he employs so many writers. In fact, Stewart gives Fox’s hosts something to complain about — confirmation that the media is “biased” and the game rigged against them — but Fox gives Stewart a reason to exist, and he’s been obsessed with Roger Ailes ever since he went to O’Reilly’s studio and was summoned into Ailes’s office. He stayed an hour and came out a freaked-out admirer, like the crazy newscaster in Network once Ned Beatty got through with him. It wasn’t just that Ailes asked him, right off the bat, “How are your kids?” and then berated him for hating conservatives; it wasn’t even that both men are intensely concerned about what people think of them and have no qualms about trying to influence how they’re portrayed. It’s that Ailes is all about power and so has accepted the obligation that Stewart has proudly refused. You want to know the difference between the Left and the Right in America? The Right has Roger Ailes, and the Left has Jon Stewart; the Right has an evil genius, while the Left contents itself with a genius of perceived non-evil.
And yet a man can dream, can’t he, and on the evening he has Juan Williams on his show, he does that thing again, that Jon Stewart thing, of saying who he really is, and what he really wants, and his vision for America. Oh, he takes a few stabs at comedy, but the debt-ceiling controversy is about as funny as a joke in Farsi, and by the time Williams comes out, Stewart is ready to do some talking about journalism. Williams is pushing a new book, Muzzled, about the experience of getting canned from NPR for saying that he was afraid of Muslims on Fox, and after Stewart makes another tote-bag joke and gently tries to get Williams to admit that Fox hired him at least in part to score points against NPR, there isn’t a lot of the surprise that Stewart both fears and prizes in his interviews … until he asks Williams to stay for a while after the show ends, so they can talk. Stewart, you see, has something he wants to talk about. More precisely, he has an idea, and he wants to run it by Juan Williams.
“If somebody wanted to start a twenty-four-hour news network that would focus on corruption and governance as opposed to the politics of it, do you think that that would have a chance to be successful and change the way debate occurs in the States? The same sort of relentlessness, energy, and passion that Fox pours into being the conservative counterweight — imagine that being poured toward better government or anticorruption… Boy, it would be an interesting thing to be: a Roger Ailes of veracity.”
Really. Straight up. No shit. That’s the vision and that’s the dream. And that’s where the Foxification of Jon Stewart comes to some weird alternate-universe fruition. In his mind, he’s always been the Roger Ailes of veracity, but on a dinky scale. He’d like to take it to a bigger one. Here’s a guy who goes to work in a building whose entrance has the words “Abandon News, All Ye Who Enter Here” inscribed on the lintel, who spends his waking hours criticizing journalists and at the same time rejecting journalistic responsibilities … and who dreams of being the president of a nonideological twenty-four-hour news network. It’s crazy and it’s touching, as even he must know, for no sooner does he allow himself to dream it than he hears a voice in his head whispering, “Stay in your lane, boy. Stay in your lane.” But he’s forty-eight years old, with a wife and two kids; his father left home when he was eleven and has apparently never attended any of his gigs as a comedian. He has always benefited from the collective fantasy. But the fantasy of being the Roger Ailes of veracity is not collective — it’s his and his alone.
He hasn’t really aged like a president. He’s aged like the president. They are close to the same age — they are both terminal baby boomers whose identification with their generation consists of listening to old-school music and remembering when basketball players wore really tight shorts and tube socks — and they both benefited from the same collective fantasy. They are both cool and smart, and they both gained moral authority by seeming to rise up in answer to our terrible times … and yet somehow they have both ended up as political figures who insist that they are above the troublesome fractiousness of politics. Jon Stewart likes President Obama personally but is disappointed in him. Well, who isn’t? Even Obama is disappointed with Obama. Indeed, it’s Stewart’s disappointment with Obama that solidifies his status as the Obama of comedy. He might not win his battles, he might not even fight them, but damn, he’s admired for his evenhandedness. And on the night he had Juan Williams as his guest, he told one joke about Obama for every joke he told about John Boehner, as if they were cars making their way into the Lincoln Tunnel.
Was he funny? Well, there is a sound that comedians know is always there, waiting for them. It’s not laughter. Nor is it the sound of booing or catcalls. It goes like this: Whooooo … and American audiences make it to signal not that they find a joke funny but that they get it and agree with it. Comedians fear it, because they know it’s easy to get. They know that it’s the end of something and the beginning of something else — the end of comedy and the beginning of “humor,” in which they get no more laughs but bask in the applause of the audiences whose prejudices they flatter.
Jon Stewart has made a career of avoiding “Whooo” humor. He has flattered the prejudices of his audience, but he has always been funny, and he has always made them laugh. At the Juan Williams taping, however, at least half of Stewart’s jokes elicited the sound of Whooo! instead of the sound of laughter. He’s been able to concentrate his comedy into a kind of shorthand — a pause, or a raised eyebrow, is often all that is necessary now — but a stranger not cued to laugh could be forgiven for not laughing, indeed for thinking that what was going on in front of him was not comedy at all but rather high-toned journalism with a sense of humor. Which might be how Jon Stewart wants it by now. But outside the building there’s still a giant version of him standing with clasped hands, and he looks ready to take the piss out of anyone, including the gray-haired man inside, talking seriously to a Fox News analyst about starting a network something like Fox, without the laughs.