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.

You Might Also Like

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 a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...