Jon Stewart has been the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central since 1999 -- exactly as long as Vladimir Putin has been in power in the Kremlin. Now, I’m not saying that might not be a coincidence. Can I prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Stewart is an agent of a foreign power, a KGB stooge planted on a low-rated, late-night comedy show in order to destroy America from within? I cannot. But I think it’s legitimate to raise the very real questions that the chicken-butts and suck-ups at Fox News are too cowardly even to ask.
I have a point to make there, sort of, though it isn’t about Putin. While the haters at Fox have correctly perceived a spiritual and ideological linkage between Stewart and Barack Obama – since that was obvious long before the news of their scandalous secret meetings – they are too stupid and short-sighted to understand how it works. Stewart’s role as Obama’s media doppelgänger, or as the outlet for the collective Id of the frustrated Obama voter, has been cannily constructed at arm’s length from the White House, with plausible deniability and a track record of just enough criticism.
Stewart has served as an apologist for Obama in the same sense that John Milton was an apologist for God: All that suffering and disappointment could not realistically have been avoided, and reflected both the sinfulness of man and the workings of Satan (enjoyably captured in Stewart's hilarious impressions of the arch-demonic although Dick Cheney). Like Milton, and at least like the pre-2010 Obama, Stewart professes to believe that our evil state can still be redeemed by a return to virtue. That fundamental hopefulness has both empowered and constrained his satire. It’s clearly not an accident that Stewart is departing his perch just as his BFF winds down his term in the Oval Office; among other things, the prospect of having to play that role of sober, clear-eyed defender for President Hillary Clinton would drain anyone’s faith in Christian salvation.
Stewart has made great sport, during his last week on the air, of Fox media pundit Howard Kurtz’s efforts to depict him as a shameless tool of the Obama White House, mostly by playing clips of Kurtz and other Fox talking heads trumpeting Stewart’s earlier Obama criticisms. Kurtz is a moronic hack whose only agenda is to discredit any and all liberal voices, but Stewart understands that his credibility, and his legacy, are at stake here. It’s startling to realize that he has been on the air so long that an entire generation of young Americans – at least in the liberal, cosmopolitan quadrant of the nation -- has grown to adulthood viewing him as the most trusted news anchor on television, much the way my generation viewed Walter Cronkite (as Lewis Black has observed).
It’s true that Stewart has raised the fake-news genre to new satirical heights, and has imbued it with a sense of moral seriousness that was at least sometimes effective. He rarely punches down at vulnerable targets and in his best interviews – with CNBC financial shill Jim Cramer, for example, or disgraced New York Times reporter Judith Miller – he is courteous, well-informed and devastating, a combination that has largely disappeared from TV news. But Stewart’s generational significance says less about him or his comedy show than about what has become of broadcast news in general.
Is it sexist to say that in response to 9/11 and the rise of the Internet the major network news operations castrated themselves? No doubt it is, but TV news has always been a sexist business. Beset on all sides by political and marketing demands, the network executives and producers first cut their balls off and then lobotomized themselves. Then they self-administered an IRA-style kneecapping, just to finish the job. It was like a one-man avant-garde performance of “King Lear,” given by Brian Williams. It’s no dis on Stewart to say that he looked like the love child of Mark Twain and Edward R. Murrow in comparison.
I’ve made this point before, but the vapid, self-glorifying fantasies of Williams, the globetrotting serial fabricator with the uncanny resemblance to Max Headroom, is a central characteristic of contemporary TV news, not some kind of bug. His problem was not that he delivered delusional, sycophantic bullshit about America and its role in the world but that his specific grade of bullshit became too obvious, and honestly we should be grateful to him. The contrast with Stewart is instructive: Williams was a news anchor who transparently longed to be an entertainer; Stewart is an entertainer who transparently plays the part of a news anchor. One of them is perceived as trustworthy and sincere, the other as an unctuous hypocrite. That’s a trite observation, but it contains a central contradiction of the Jon Stewart era: We’re in on the joke, and we know the whole spectacle is a sham. But we still want someone or something to believe in.
Stewart’s highly developed performance of sincerity has been the key to his success, especially set against the burbling bogosity of the news media as a whole. You can call it actual sincerity if you insist, but two things about that: 1) You don’t know for sure, and 2) On television, there’s no difference. Another startling fact that resurfaced this week was that someone else hosted “The Daily Show” in the primordial chaos before Stewart (and before Putin). That was Craig Kilborn, the Boris Yeltsin of late-night comedy, whose entire shtick was the performance of insincerity. Kilborn could be amusing at times, but the circularity of his smug, self-regarding, shellacked persona was exhausting: I’m above this crap and so are you, but let’s revel in its craptastic absurdity while we can. Jumanji!
Whether out of genuine conviction or showbiz instinct (and it was probably both), Stewart rapidly understood that Kilborn’s theatrical, eye-rolling boredom was played out and that a new century, and a new political era, demanded a new approach. He first rose to national prominence with the “Daily Show’s” withering coverage of the endless “hanging chad” election of 2000, which the mainstream networks felt compelled to pretend was a legitimate process played out under the rule of law, rather than a transparent political coup that could have been more fairly decided with a coin flip or a vogueing competition. (Although, as Stewart would surely agree, George W. Bush would have dusted Al Gore in a vogueing competition.)
From there Stewart gradually evolved into the principal media mouthpiece or channel – the two things are not quite the same – for what might be called common-sense liberalism, the self-appointed pathway of Enlightenment reason. He has called himself a moderate and admitted voting for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and while you shouldn’t hold a person’s youthful indiscretions against him, I think that fact is important to the Stewart brand. He is disappointed, disillusioned and sometimes outraged by the evil and idiocy found on the Republican right and the thoroughgoing corruption of the political system. But he is not unreasonable, not an ideologue, not a “leftist.” He believes in comity and compromise, and yearns for the kinder, gentler days when a 25-year-old Jewish standup comedian in New York could vote for Ronald Reagan’s vice president without consciously self-identifying with a party of bigotry, warmongering and paranoia.
Was that a low blow? I’m honestly not sure. I come to bury Jon Stewart, not to praise him – except, wait, maybe it’s the other way around. First of all, let’s note that Stewart isn’t dead, so I’m under no obligation to say nice stuff about him just because he is leaving a television program after 16 years. Furthermore, there’s a reason most people get that Shakespeare quotation backwards: The speaker of that famous monologue, Marc Antony, repeatedly challenges his audience to perceive that what he says is not what he means: “Brutus is an honorable man,” and all that. He is using irony, in its old-fashioned Socratic sense (not the debased modern sense of easy mockery, or just a bad attitude), which is a mode that Jon Stewart has never mastered and largely avoids.
Stephen Colbert’s long-running satirical portrayal of a jingoistic Fox-style commentator, first on Stewart’s show and then on his own, had a random, hit-and-miss quality and often descended to cheap gags. (On balance, Stewart probably provides more laffs per minute.) But in his best moments, Colbert has employed the ironic mode to reality-altering effect, and never more so than in his infamous performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, when he mocked the empty, photo-op presidency of George W. Bush to the president’s face and derided the Washington press corps for its stenographic compliance: “Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”
Stewart would make the same joke on his show, pretty much, but he would immediately walk it back to the mode of earnestness and be super clear about what he meant: CNN et al. had behaved like a bag of dicks and that was really a shame. Colbert, on the other hand, vividly demonstrated Socrates’ principle that the destabilizing and disorienting effect of irony depends upon the “aneiron,” the person who doesn’t get the joke. In this case, everyone at that dinner understood that Colbert meant the opposite of what he said, which is why none of them were laughing. What they had not understood, because it seemed inconceivable, was that a TV comic’s joke persona contained a radical critique of the nature of politics and the news media, and that Colbert was not going to observe the cozy, chummy conventions of a Beltway event whose sole purpose is to make the subservient Washington press corps feel like special snowflakes.
Stewart is not comfortable in that mode, and has never pursued that kind of confrontation. His on-air rhetoric slid perceptibly leftward over the course of the Bush administration, as he vigorously went after the bankers, the Iraq war apologists and the torture defenders. But even after his show hit a demographic sweet spot somewhere around the Democratic center-left – the position of the 2008 Obama voter – he struggled to avoid the impression of pure partisanship. As recently as 2010, although it feels like a lifetime ago, Stewart was calling for an end to partisan vitriol with his Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall. Even he must have thought the immediate aftermath was pretty funny: A few days later, Tea Party Republicans swept to victory from coast to coast in the midterm election that pretty much paralyzed Obama’s presidency. So that was the end of that.
Salon columnist Bill Curry has suggested that Stewart belongs to the Pragmatist tradition of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and seeks to draw a distinction between Stewart’s faith in reason and usefulness and Obama’s penchant for back-room political compromise. It’s a fascinating argument, but that might be an overly fine way to parse a TV comedian – often a very funny one, with a delightful ability to mock others and mock himself in the same moment – who has insisted on walking the narrow plank of reasonableness in times of rampant unreason, and now finds himself alone at the end of the plank above an ocean of hungry sharks.
I understand why it bothers Stewart that Fox News is depicting him, during his last days on the air, as a shameless Obama sock-puppet. He feels that it’s not quite fair and he feels more than a little vulnerable on that front. Both perceptions are justified. (Stewart himself said on the air that he has been much harder on Obama than Fox ever was on Bush, which is what you might call an invidious comparison.) But Stewart’s role as Obama’s stealth strategic defender, who has criticized the administration on several key issues while consistently seeking to channel progressive anger and disappointment toward the crazy and intransigent opposition, wouldn’t bother me at all if I felt convinced that it reflected underlying convictions. (I am not counting the nonideological relativism that drives the 21st-century Democratic Party as a conviction.)
As with Stewart’s pal in the White House, that question has only grown murkier over the years. All the contradictions of political satire in the Obama years would exhaust anyone, but Stewart’s performance of sincerity, the factor that gave his comedy its force and also limited its scope, has pretty much come unraveled. You can see that in his recent interview with Tom Cruise, which barely differed from a boot-licking celebrity appearance with Oprah or Ellen, and in which (as filmmaker Alex Gibney has observed), Stewart never mentioned Cruise’s central role in the noxious Church of Scientology. You see it in Stewart’s increasingly tedious feud with Bill O’Reilly, where they play the roles of media commentators with profound ideological differences and pretend to dislike each other, coming dangerously close to the kind of masturbatory media-insider banter Colbert mocked so mercilessly a decade ago.
Jon Stewart has had a great run as the host of a comedy show, the kind of longevity that has become nearly impossible in American pop culture. In political terms, his mission has either been fulfilled – if he was really sent here by Putin to bewilder us and destroy democracy – or was never possible in the first place. As I said earlier, we want to be permanently in on the joke and we want to believe in something. But what if the things we want to believe in are just a joke?