Sorry, Jon Stewart: You’re not “just a comedian”

"The Daily Show" needs to stop pretending he's simply another late-night jokester -- and own his real influence

Topics: Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, Rally to Restore Sanity, Obamacare, crossfire, Erik Wemple, Barack Obama, Affordable Care Act, Editor's Picks, ,

Sorry, Jon Stewart: You're not "just a comedian" (Credit: Comedy Central)

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.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 10
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie

    A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie

    Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant

    A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Black Silk" by Judith Ivory

    A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale

    A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner

    A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ...   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen

    Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal

    A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

    Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time.   Read the whole essay.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...