Jon Stewart (Comedy Central/Salon)

Jon Stewart conquered Fox News: Essential highlights from "The Daily Show's" 16 years of truth-telling

The most important American satirist, ever? Take that, Ben Franklin and Mark Twain -- Stewart comes in at No. 1


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Sophia A. McClennen
July 20, 2015 9:50PM (UTC)

As we enter the final run of Jon Stewart’s tenure as host of "The Daily Show," we can expect a pack of top-10 lists to appear.  While these lists are certain to offer fans a chance to reminisce over classic Stewart moments, I’m going to offer a different spin.  Rather than select 10 key moments from his show, I’m going to offer the 10 reasons why Stewart is the best satirist our nation has known—with examples from the show.

My goal is not just to offer great Stewart memories, but to also prove that Stewart’s comedy was the most socially significant example of political satire in U.S. history.

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Calling Stewart the best satirist our nation has ever known is no small thing.  Recall, for example, that the American Revolution was known for its satire.  In fact, ranging from Ben Franklin to Samuel Clemens our nation has a long and impressive list of political satirists who used irony to encourage the public to question the status quo.  The Vietnam era was also full of satire—especially via The Smothers Brothers.  But I want to make the case that Stewart’s satire trumps them all and here’s why:

1. He changed satire.

Satire is a form of comedy that is designed to call out stupidity, folly, hubris, deception, and abuses of power.  Stewart did that well, but over the course of his time as host he witnessed the increasing decline of the news media as a source of valuable information for the public. As Geoffrey Baym points out, over the years, Stewart became a prime source of news—not just a commentary on it.  "The Daily Show" literally stepped in to cover issues that were just being ignored or willfully abandoned by the mainstream news media. This is what happened when Stewart went after CNBC’s Jim Cramer over his coverage of the 2009 financial crisis or when he took down CNN’s "Crossfire," leading the station to cancel the show since Stewart’s claim that the show was “hurting America” was exactly right.

He also dove right into politics—maybe not as obviously as Stephen Colbert who ran for President twice when he hosted The Colbert Report—but don’t forget the role that Stewart played in helping to get legislation passed to support healthcare for the 9/11 First Responders.  Or his efforts to support veterans' rights.  Beyond his hard-hitting interviews of politicians, he got directly involved in public issues in ways no other satirist ever had before.  Stewart’s political satire was no longer an afterthought, an aside, a humorous commentary—it was a major player in calling attention to major public issues. 

2. He changed the media. 

Just as "The Daily Show" under Stewart’s leadership began to play a more central role as a source of news for the U.S. public, he also began to influence the way that the news media itself covered issues. The most obvious change was the way that the media would offer stories on Stewart himself—meaning that satire was not just commenting on news; it was actually news.  Just about every time that he did a major bit, it was covered in the news the next day. But it gets weirder. Just as Stewart was calling on news media to do their jobs, they started trying to be funny.  This shift took place largely as news media attempted to attract the young demographic that was increasingly turning to Stewart and Colbert as their main source of news.  Think, for example about Anderson Cooper’s Ridiculist segment—it’s an obvious effort to make his show fun.

Sadly, though, the news folks don’t get satire, and the introduction of humor into their shows actually decreases their credibility with viewers.  So while the news media scrambled to be relevant to young viewers, Stewart and his fellow satirists turned satire into the most trusted, most viewed news source among young citizens.  And, even better, their viewers were consistently the most informed of all news consumers. Stewart made the “fake” news realer than the real news.

3. He changed politics.

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When Stewart entered the scene the nation headed quickly into the blue state versus red state aggressive oppositions we find ourselves in today. All of that got exponentially worse after 9/11/2001 when political speech resorted to us versus them antagonisms.  Stewart refused to allow such reductive logic to hold sway and he consistently called out party rhetoric while advocating for a return to reasoned debate.  One excellent example was when he called out Nancy Pelosi for doing nothing more than spitting out the party line.  And who could forget his ongoing debates with Bill O’Reilly where he repeatedly insisted that O’Reilly stop relying on faulty logic and own up to his aggressive, egotistical messaging?  For an extended play of their sparring remember their 2012 debate.

Perhaps the most obvious way he altered politics, though, was his role as an interviewer of politicians—both domestic and international.  As Stewart exits his stint as host, we now have a landscape where most politicians expect to interact with comedians, especially when they are on the campaign trail. But Stewart’s unique hard-hitting interview style was sharp, funny, and incisive and it offered the U.S. public some of the most important media interactions with politicians they had ever seen.

4. He inspired others.

As we look back on Stewart’s career, I believe he will be remembered not only for his distinctive brand of passionate satire, but also for the way he mentored and inspired other comedians to take up the cause.  From Stephen Colbert to John Oliver to Samantha Bee, Stewart worked with a number of comedians who went off to do their own shows.  While they all have their own unique creative talent, it seems clear that Stewart served as a valuable mentor.  Unlike many other satirists, Stewart worked with a large team and regularly brought in “correspondents,” referred to as “The Best F*cking News team” to cover issues, as in this one example of election coverage from 2013.

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Don’t forget, too, that the next host of "The Daily Show," Trevor Noah, appeared as a guest twice as well. In addition to supporting a highly creative cast, Stewart’s impact was global.  Egyptian Bassem Youssef modeled his show directly after Stewart’s and Stewart worked hard to support him when the show came under threat and was eventually canceled.  We’ve never seen that sort of mentoring in a satirist before.  It reveals a baseline creative generosity that guarantees an ongoing impact for his approach to political comedy.

5. He created a movement.

Stewart did more than mentor other comedians; he motivated millennials to become more engaged citizens. And he offered a vision of citizenship that combined political passion with entertainment and fun.  As Jeffrey Jones explains, politics today no longer takes place in a separate sphere from entertainment.

Not all mixing of politics and entertainment is the same, though. Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsensio Hall is far different from Stewart combining puns with a take down of the drone program.  Stewart educated his audience, but he did it through irony, which requires sophisticated critical thinking. Today we have a more critically active generation of young voters than this nation has ever seen—and Stewart played a large role in creating that momentum. One great example was his Rally on the National Mall with Colbert in 2013. Another is the boom in what I call citizen-satire that has allowed average citizens to use irony to spark political debate. For example,@LOLGOP on Twitter has 206K followers and is part of the growing movement where citizens use satire, irony, and snark to resist political dogma.

6.  He built trust.

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In 2008, The New York Times reported that Jon Stewart was “the most trusted man in America.” As they explained:

at a time when Fox, MSNBC and CNN routinely mix news and entertainment, larding their 24-hour schedules with bloviation fests and marathon coverage of sexual predators and dead celebrities, it’s been “The Daily Show” that has tenaciously tracked big, “super depressing” issues like the cherry-picking of prewar intelligence, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the efforts of the Bush White House to augment its executive power.

That same year Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that ‘The Daily Show’ is clearly impacting American dialogue”: “its topic agenda is highly focused on the public square, on issues of significance.” Also a 2007 poll by the Pew Center for Research had Stewart tied with Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather for most trusted.  Now, eight years later, it is clear which man is still standing. The idea that Stewart would outrank so many mainstream news personalities on trust proves his extraordinary impact on public perception.  As trust in news media and politicians waned, trust in Stewart increased.  Stewart helped save the nation from falling into cynical apathy.

7. He told the truth.

Stewart built trust because he told the truth.  The hitch was that Stewart told the truth through satire.  Satire uses irony, mockery, puns, and other forms of wordplay to point out an existing reality and say: WTF?  Instead of using the frustrated tone of Rachel Maddow, Stewart would show mash-ups of clips and allow his audience to draw their conclusions.  One of his favorite themes was lying—politicians lying, media lying—and, most often, Fox News lying.  In one Vine he highlighted 50 Fox News lies.   He also loved to go after the insane, bloviating rants of pundits.  In one of my favorites, he impersonates Glenn Beck, going after his signature style of using a blackboard, offering signature “logic”, and teaching his audience about the evils of progressives.  In that bit, Stewart exposes the fallacies to Beck’s rants while revealing the ugly truth of persuasive pundit power.

8. He called out bullshit.

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One of the key features to Stewart’s satire that so many overlook is the fact that he never hesitated to go after Democrats when he felt they deserved it.  His satire was not one-sided politically, and he always went after reductive party politics, empty rhetoric, and bullshit. As mentioned already, he went after Obama on drones and Pelosi on party politics.  One excellent example was when he interviewed Kathleen Sebelius on the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act.  When she skirted his questions, he kept after her.  Refusing to back off, he asked her to answer for the problems citizens were having signing up.

That didn’t mean, though, that he wasn’t supportive of health care for all. His show spotlighted anti-health care activist Betsy McCaughey a number of times, including an excellent interview with Stewart where he dissected the bullshit she was spewing over the bill and they compared their readings of the actual document. McCaughey had caught public attention as the “objective researcher” of the bill. Stewart brought out his own inner geek and demonstrated that she was, in his words, “dangerous and hyperbolic.” In this way, Stewart showed the nation that you can be critical without being negative.  And you can be supportive of your party without being a lapdog.

9. He redefined patriotism.

One of the key features of Stewart’s satire that keeps him in the company of Franklin and Clemens is the fact that his satire is aimed at redefining America and reclaiming an image of the nation that is reasonable, just, democratic, and committed to upholding basic rights. This feature of his satire has been especially important in an era of U.S. politics when, as Geoffrey Nunberg explains, the GOP seems to have cornered the market on defining patriotism. Along with Colbert, Stewart launched a new progressive movement to take back America from pundits like O’Reilly, Beck, and Ann Coulter who claim to know the true meaning of American values. His America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction combined with Colbert’s books -- I Am America: And So Can You and America Again: Reclaiming the Greatness We Never Weren’t -- to offer much-needed counterpoints to the pro-America pundit book mill But, unlike the caustic nature of some progressive intellectuals like Bill Maher, Stewart’s optimism, empathy, and genuine concern for the wellbeing of the nation offered a new model for progressive patriotism that was sorely needed.

10. He never forgot he was a comedian.

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Despite being asked to consider hosting “Meet the Press”, Stewart never lost sight of his role as a comedian. While the news media seemed to look more and more like a circus show and "The Daily Show" seemed more and more like serious news, Stewart refused to allow a complete role reversal. He insisted time and again that he was a comedian, and that’s exactly what the nation needed most.  Stewart offered his audience more than any news show ever could: he gave them the power of satire. Beyond exposing lies, deception, and abuses of power, his satire offered his audience critical skills they could use to think through the issues of the day and resist the media spin that controls the narrative.

One of the best recent examples was his takedown of GOP support for Donald Trump’s anti-Latino comments.  In that clip Stewart is at his satirical best, calling out bullshit, refusing false logic, and using humor productively and politically.  Stewart knew that his art was the art of comedy and he also knew that his job was to make jokes, not change the world. That task was up to his viewers.

As he enters into the final run, I am sure that the show will yield even more highlights that we could add to our top ten favorite lists. But, ten examples will simply never be enough to cover each important Stewart/"Daily Show" moment. Instead of the best moments from the show, we would do well to remember the various interventions Stewart made into the realm of political satire.  His satire played a role in bolstering our democracy at a time when most public discourse had become antagonistic, illogical, aggressive, and just plain stupid. For 16 years, he tried to elevate that discourse, keep us laughing, and remind us to think.  He may be signing off on August 6, but there is little question that his legacy is here to stay.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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