I remember quite clearly when Jon Stewart lost me. It was the fall of 2010, during those final hours before the Tea Party wave washed over the country and transformed American politics. It was a desperate time for left-of-center folks, especially for those of us, like myself at the time, who had invested a considerable amount of time and emotional energy toward what Sarah Palin once called that “hopey, changey stuff.” Everyone knew the Republicans were going to win; and everyone knew the disappointment-bordering-on-apathy of so many young Obama voters was going to be one of the more significant reasons why. It was depressing.
In this context, Stewart (along with Stephen Colbert) decided to hold a rally — the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Its wasn’t clear what the point of the rally was, though it was obviously political, since it was set to take place in Washington, D.C. But keep in mind that this was a time when, to the average viewer of “The Daily Show,” it looked like a monsoon of crazy was about to descend on the land and level everything in its path. Glenn Beck had just staged his own massive D.C. rally, after all. So the expectation that a rally to “restore sanity” was going to be a rally against the Glenn Beck/Tea Party mindset (if not quite a rally for the president) was not an unreasonable one.
What we got instead, though, was a weird and unsatisfying combination of self-conscious irony and banal sanctimony. Stewart in particular delivered a supremely tedious and sentimental speech, one that sounded like third-rate Obama at his most touchy-feely, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along-y. Greatest of all sins, it wasn’t funny. And it didn’t try to be. It was painfully earnest, and it made the whole rally, in retrospect, look like a display of egotism no less substantial than Glenn Beck’s, which, despite Stewart’s protestations to the contrary, it was quite clearly intended to lampoon. From that moment on, it became difficult to view Jon Stewart as “just” a comedian.
And yet whenever Stewart’s political leanings become the focus of news, as they have recently in the wake of his critical coverage of the Obamacare rollout, the pundit/comedian tries to hide behind a veil of supposed frivolity. He protests that he’s “just” a comedian, and mocks the idea of anyone taking him or “The Daily Show” too seriously. He’ll even devote a whole segment of his show to how silly it is for others in the media to see him as an influential voice (a segment that the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple rightly called a gigantic humble-brag), which may indeed be lazy on other journalists’ part, but is hardly absurd.
True, it goes way, way too far to say that Jon Stewart’s barbs have an appreciable impact on public opinion polling. That’s an analysis that wildly oversimplifies the case. It deserves to be ridiculed. But it’s not unreasonable to say that Jon Stewart is a player in the political opinion arena, one with more influence than most, and that what he and his staff decide to cover on “The Daily Show” both reflects and shapes the political conversation of the moment.
So when Stewart devotes a show to excoriating the Obama administration over the botched unveiling of Obamacare, it matters. It means something. It tells us that, regardless of what conservatives might be saying, the Obama administration is indeed messing up. “The Daily Show” doesn’t mock success. It targets incompetence, hypocrisy, dysfunction. Rather than being pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, those are its biases. And Stewart’s audience knows this; it’s the foundation of his influence.
Now, all of this is not to say that Stewart should keep quiet when it comes to the Obama administration’s flaws. Far from it. “The Daily Show” would be a significantly inferior product if it didn’t show a willingness to gore all sacred cows. So I’m not asking for him to tone it down or redirect fire. What I am asking, however, is that Stewart spare us the “I’m just a comedian” act and own his influence. Someone who is “just” a comedian doesn’t hold a political rally, and definitely doesn’t go on “Crossfire.” You’re a pundit, Jon, albeit one with jokes. Now start acting like it.