Jon Stewart redefined what it meant to do political satire in our nation. Rather than simply riff off of the news, his show became the news. And, rather than entertain viewers after they had heard the news in a serious format elsewhere, he often was their first stop and their most trusted one. This is why the revelation that he has decided to step down as host of “The Daily Show” is such devastating news. It signals not just a loss for satire, but also a threat to the health of our democracy.
Those that watch the “The Daily Show” have been proven to have greater knowledge of current issues than the viewers of other television news. In 2007 Stewart tied for the No. 4 most admired journalist, alongside Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather. After Walter Cronkite died, Time magazine conducted a poll that showed that Stewart was the most trusted newsman in America. Stewart was not just informing his viewers, he was offering them a figure they could trust. Even “Meet the Press” tried to get him to host their show.
But they didn’t understand that, even though Stewart seemed like a trusted and important newsman, his goal was really to be a comedian. Stewart may have informed his audience, but he did it with irony, wit, and playful puns. He never wanted his audience to forget that he was on Comedy Central.
While Stewart was a unique figure in the history of our nation’s satire, he grew to this stature with lots of help. Both news media and politicians consistently made it easy for Stewart to step in and offer his viewers a breath of fresh air as he helped unpack the media hype, explain the folly of government, and give his viewers a chance to laugh while thinking critically at the same time.
By the time Stewart began hosting his show in 1999, the news media was already in full descent from news source to frivolous entertainment. Fox News had come on the scene in 1996 and was increasing the political polarization of news as well as its lax connection to facts. Now with the recent revelations about Brian Williams, Stewart’s satire seems refreshingly honest and sincere.
Stewart didn’t just go after the news media; he also went for the politicians. After 9/11/2001 Stewart, along with Stephen Colbert, offered viewers one of the few sources of information that countered the party line coming out of the White House and the mainstream media. But, despite the hype that Stewart’s satire was partisan, he also critiqued Democrats like Nancy Pelosi as well as Barack Obama. Over the years Stewart consistently called out politicians—on both sides of the aisle—when he felt they were letting our nation down.
Stewart did much more, though, than just offer our nation one of the best sources of political insight on cable. He has also mentored and supported a range of comedians that are each continuing their own version of the Stewart satirical tradition. First he led Stephen Colbert to host his own show –a show that had a major impact on public political knowledge. He was also instrumental in giving John Oliver the visibility to launch his own show. Oliver premiered his new HBO show, “This Week Tonight,” this past April just in time to launch a series of mock mid-term election ads. And then we witnessed the premiere of “The Nightly Show” with Larry Wilmore, which offers viewers a rare chance to see a satirical news program that concentrates on issues of race.
Stewart didn’t just motivate other professional satirists. He joined with other comedians in encouraging and supporting the rise of what I have called “citizen-satirists.” These are average citizens –often young millennials--who engage with politics through the use of satirical tweets, memes, and facebook posts. Often a single line of an episode from “The Daily Show” would lead to a Twitter hashtag that would allow viewers to create their own unique brand of satirical critique. When Rush Limbaugh mocked the use of #BringBackOurGirls in reference to the Boko Haram kidnappings, Stewart responded by urging viewers to trend #F*@kYouRush on Twitter. Satirical twitter accounts like@LOLGOP have over 191,000 followers. One of the account's latest tweets was: “Hoping this Jon Stewart stepping down thing is just some story Brian Williams made up.” @TeaPartyCat has over 109,000 followers and it recentlytweeted: “Next up on Fox News: Jon Stewart to retire from The Daily Show, now that he's helped Obama turn America into a communist hellhole.”
This means that while the news of Stewart’s departure as host of “The Daily Show” is a loss for satire, we can take some comfort in the fact that his style of satire has power and influence among both average citizens and professional comedians. Of course most comforting of all would be to hear that he may be stepping down from “The Daily Show,” but he won’t be retiring from satire. It is certainly hard to imagine going through the 2016 presidential election without his sharp insight and quick wit. Let's hope we don't have to.