No, Jon Stewart, you're not just a comedian

When he's not actually doing it on his show, the "Daily Show" host's media criticism can come across as trite

Published June 21, 2011 7:22PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

This originally appeared at Attytood, Will Bunch's blog at

TV funnyman (I love that phrase) Jon Stewart is back in the news again, as he so frequently seems to be. For reasons I don't fully understand, Chris Wallace thought it would be a good idea to invite the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" on his program, "Fox News Sunday," and Stewart agreed to come on. Of course, Stewart showed his gratitude by telling Wallace that he was "insane" and saying that FNC is disproportionately responsible for poisoning the discourse in this country.

Stewart called Fox News a "relentless agenda-driven 24-hour news opinion propaganda delivery system" -- that sounds about right. But then he added this:

"Here's the difference between you and I. I'm a comedian first. My comedy is informed by an ideological background, there's no question about that. But the thing that you will never understand ... is that Hollywood, yeah, they're liberal, but that's not their primary motivating force. I'm not an activist. I am a comedian."

Longtime readers know I have a tangled view of Jon Stewart and his role in our vast and all-powerful media universe. Like a lot of folks who love both politics and the absurdity of politics, I live for the arrival of Stewart and "TDS" at 11 p.m., and I get anxious and uneasy during those way too many weeks the show is on vacation, as it was last week. That's because I think when he's doing his "day job" during those 30 minutes he is -- bizarre as it sounds -- the best working journalist in America. The examples are many -- his legendary takedown of CNBC that shone light on the financial crisis in a way that mainstream media wasn't capable of doing, his relentless fact-checking of the TV news, and -- most nobly of all -- his fight for the 9/11 rescue workers when it became clear that our politicians and journalists were too craven to do anything.

But outside of "The Daily Show," in interviews like the one he gave to Chris Wallace and even his famous 2004 confrontation that may or may not have killed CNN's "Crossfire," I find that Stewart (and it pains me to say this, as such a fan) can come across as kind of lame, his "media criticism" beyond trite. In interviews, his complaints against the media tend to be an unsophisticated "pox on all of your houses." I thought his largely pointless D.C. mall rally in late October repeated the mistake he makes in these interviews -- trying to argue that our discourse is too loud while ignoring the real point that he hammers home on "The Daily Show," that our politics is irrational.

But the lamest thing of all, frankly, is Stewart trying to absolve responsibility from the gravitas of what he does -- and make no mistake, the gravitas is there -- by claiming that merely, "I am a comedian." That's true, but he fails to see what many others realize, which is that he is also much more than a comedian. In a world where far too much of highly paid professional journalism, especially inside the Beltway, has become a joke, it has fallen on the comedians -- Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher perhaps the most prominent -- to say what on-one-hand, on-the-other hand journalists are too tied up in knots to tell you, that much of America's discourse in 2011 is bat-guano insane.

Actually, Jon Stewart, you are an activist, and the cause you fight for is most worthy because -- as you do correctly note -- it is not a purely ideological one, but the cause of reason. And the fight against illogic is not a "fair and balanced" one, that the most dangerous bogus ideas may be concentrated in the spots where global warming doesn't exist and the way to balance a budget deficit is more tax cuts for rich people. For whatever reason, in the past your friend and colleague Colbert -- who coined "truthiness" and said that reality has a known liberal bias -- has gotten it a lot better than you do.

Maybe Stewart is starting to get it, too. He did say on Sunday that he has an ideology that "is non-partisan and focuses on 'absurdity,' 'anti-corruption' and 'anti lack-of-authenticity.'" That sounds exactly right, so now it's time to drop the "just a comedian" shtick, which comes off like a giant cop-out, exactly the kind of thing that you normally expose so very well, night after night.

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By Will Bunch

Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the political blog Attytood.

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