Last week Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, announced that he would be stepping down from his position later this year. I received the news while traveling, so unfortunately I was unable to post something in time to participate in the chatter. Still though, while it may be a bit early for a tribute, I’d like to offer a few words.
Over the past sixteen years The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has become a cultural powerhouse. He may have only wanted to entertain, but Stewart has accumulated millions of regular viewers, nineteen Emmy Awards, and immeasurable influence. He’s hosted the Academy Awards twice, he's written and directed his own film, and he was the subject of my professor’s doctorate on the rhetorical use of humor. Stewart has advanced satire, and comedy in general, as an art form. In my sincere opinion, he’s a modern Shakespeare.
Why is it that a fake news show became so popular and so profound? Jon Stewart is a lovable guy. He is truly honest. Whether or not you agree with his views and conclusions, he sincerely searches for the truth. He apologizes when he’s wrong. He’s an adept and natural interviewer. He candidly handles all subjects, both laughable and somber.
Oddly enough, Jon Stewart's primary tool for uncovering the truth is satire. This satire, however, is supported by data, evidence, and rationality. He harnesses comedy to subvert corrupt power structures (primarily the media and the political system) and reveal their underlying hypocrisies and absurdities. Comedians have always done this, but The Daily Show excels in a new way. It has proved the commercial viability of opposing corruption and infotainment. I disagree with the oft-repeated assertion that young people turn to The Daily Show (and previously The Colbert Report) for news. They turn to it for entertainment. With the exception of exposé pieces, The Daily Show doesn’t report news—it analyzes and reinterprets. You can’t fully appreciate the humor if you aren’t already familiar with current events and how the media has covered them.
Jon Stewart’s occupation is to entertain by criticism and ridicule, but he manages to do this without descending into cynicism. He balances the pessimistic nature of his task with his own inherent optimism. Stewart criticizes not out of hopelessness, but with the aspiration of creating a better reality. He doesn’t just condemn the Iraq War and subsequent treatment of returning veterans, he does something about it. He knows how to use his influence not only to amuse, but also to help.
So, with all of that in mind, I hope that you can appreciate the last episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s been a moving, illuminating, and hilarious run—enjoy the rest.
If you’re not familiar with Stewart’s work, here are a few illustrative examples:
September 3, 2008. The clip highlights double standards in conservative coverage of Sarah Palin.
December 13, 2010. Stewart criticizes Congress for obstructing the 9/11 first responders bill.
January 27, 2011. A mini-feud with O'Reilly develops into a case study of Fox's use of Nazi rhetoric.
February 9, 2015. Stewart offers a model critique of the media's failure to inform and investigate.