Jon Stewart (AP/Victoria Will)

Jon Stewart isn't perfect — and why should we expect him to be?

Wyatt Cenac's story of a racially-charged "The Daily Show" blowup puts an edge on Stewart's sentimental farewell

Mary Elizabeth Williams
July 24, 2015 11:59PM (UTC)

These are sentimental days for Jon Stewart fans. His days as host of "The Daily Show" are, after 16 years, dwindling down. We are in the final days of our time with the man who talked us down from the ledge through two Bush terms, who gracefully and eloquently finessed how to return to satire after 9/11, who gave us a Rally to Restore Sanity in a political moment that was far from sane. He's been the passionate, outraged voice of reason in chaotic times. And as he's moved from snarky young man to avuncular wiseguy, he's always been easy to both idolize and identify with. He's been the nobler version of ourselves. Except of course he's not. I'm sorry, he's… a human.

On Thursday, social media was reeling after a revelation from former "TDS" writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac during Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast. "And you got along with Jon?" Maron asked him, and he replied, "Nah." Cenac then recalled an incident in the midst of a public kerfuffle over the host's impression of then somewhat more relevant Tea Partier and 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain. He says Stewart had planned to address the conservative outrage with a segment called "Everything I do is racist," which Cenac disagreed with.


"I was the one black writer there," Cenac said. "It was this thing where it’s like, when you’re the one — whether you want to or not — you’re speaking for everybody. I felt like I had to speak for all the minorities, because there’s nobody speaking for them." He says during a meeting, Stewart "got incredibly defensive. I remember he was like, 'What are you trying to say? There’s a tone in your voice….' And then he got upset. He stood up and he was just like, 'F__k off. I'm done with you.’ And he just started screaming that to me, and he screamed it a few times. … 'F__k off; I’m done with you.’ And he stormed out. I didn’t know if I had been fired." He added, by the way, that Stewart later apologized: "He was like, 'Yeah, we're cool. I don’t see your side of it, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you."

Still, the headlines quickly lapped the story up on the host's "latent racism" and declared his behavior proof he was  "just being an awful, no-good, rotten ally." And with them came the stunned responses from fans. Imagine, a man who literally yells on television for a living losing her temper. I know, it's crazy.

The shock, of course, is that Stewart would get into it not with Donald Trump or Bill O'Reilly but one of his own, and the only African American on the writing team. Not our Jon! Because in our desperately dumbed down, black and white world — and I include in that population liberals like us, friends — you're either for us or against us, good or bad. And there have vague whispers for years that some people — people who have worked with him — do not care for or get along with Stewart. In 2012, comedy writer David Feldman said in an interview that Stewart's "a crowd pleaser and gives the illusion of taking chances. But he’s an impressionist and he’s trying to, uh…Well, I don’t want to talk about Jon Stewart because it’s like going after Christ." He claimed Stewart "fought his writers when they wanted to go union…. Everybody who has ever written for Jon Stewart will tell you that he hates his writers, and he’s abusive, and is anti-union. But nobody has the courage to take on Satan in Christ’s clothes."


But here's a possibility: life's not either/or. Stewart, who I imagine is a smart, well-intentioned person, is a man who five years ago said simply of his career that "there is no honor in what I do but I do it as honorably as I can." He works in a business known for its fast pace and volatility, and heads a show that has longstanding and undeniable diversity shortcomings. But he's neither a Hulk Hogan or Jesus Christ. He's a former actor, a professional comic and a person who assumes a certain character when he sits at the desk of his television show and says words that other people have written for him — as does every television host. He's a TV personality. You want him to be one of the good guys? I think the track record of the last decade and a half of television content have achieved that. You want him to be perfect? That's just laughable.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Herman Cain Jon Stewart Race The Daily Show Wyatt Cenac

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