Jon Stewart's Departure

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. 

Mastering Genre

Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993

Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993


I read a splendid article yesterday, written by Julia Drake: The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay. Take a look at it before reading this.

I love the piece so much because it perfectly encapsulates the genre of the application essay. Drake captures the voice of a high school student; the word choice of the speaker is totally authentic (in that it is inauthentic). The piece, of course, begins with the overly detailed and indulgent description of a scene. Everything scrabbles or shocks or sears as the speaker combines as much sensory detail as possible. Later on, awkward word clusters bear the marks of a thesaurus: the prospective college student inhabits a world of copious obstacles with a plethora of challenges.  

The entire essay is beautifully stitched together with jargon and clichés. Nothing like hands-on learning can pique the intellectual curiosity and instill a passion for academic discovery. Oh yes—passion—the king of application essay clichés.

Then there are the clumsily included examples. The speaker is so delightfully transparent: you can almost see a high school boy with his chin in his hand, trying to figure out where he can add his experience as French Peer Tutor. You can see that he intended to appear well rounded, but tacking on figure drawing is just arbitrary.

The genre is perfectly parodied in the speaker’s mechanical and questionable connections. He unashamedly repeats the process over and over: past experience, lesson learned, future application. Drake exposes how the dubiety of these connections is central to the average application essay. Will the speaker’s traits acquired surviving dinosaurs really make him an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community? Does his grandfather’s learning experience with terrible lizards really mirror his personal experience in [his] position as Senior Class Co-Treasurer? Also, there is nothing more real than mentioning a co-treasurer position in an application essay.

Of course, the entire piece is laden with the unavoidable combination of narcissism and naiveté. Much of it is an exposition on his complicated and profound transition into adulthood. This is a young man that takes himself very seriously: he can easily foresee continuing his senior capstone project in college’s rigorous academic environment. In a swift move he claims, the raptors were the guillotine—nay, the Robespierre—of my childhood. The irony is impeccable: he tries to prove his maturity with elevated speech, but in doing so he disproves it. As the cherry on top, the essay begins its conclusion with an arbitrary quote from Pliny the Elder. Hint: no high school student is just casually reading Pliny the Elder.

Drake’s article is brilliant because it outlines the genre of college application essay for us. By substituting the standard subject matter for something absurd (the experiences of the boy from Jurassic Park), she reveals the underlying structure. She shows her mastery of the genre by making our implicit understanding explicit. But why does this revelation create humor? Maybe it gives us pleasure to know that we were aware of the genre and its patterns all along. Maybe we are laughing at the absurd combination of Jurassic Park and a college application. Or, maybe it’s funny because we realize that we did it too.