It’s strange thinking that people my brother’s age who have just graduated from college remember Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" always being a political institution. It’s hard to explain to them just how big a deal Stewart’s sudden rise was back during the Bush years, what a shock it was to see Craig Kilborn’s tacky random-riffs-on-the-headlines show turn into the most credible source of news for the millennial generation, why Stewart’s impending retirement feels so momentous and sad.
I’m one of the college kids who in 2003 and 2004 grabbed onto what seemed like certain cultural anchors of sanity in what felt like a world gone mad. I remember the sense of despair as the Bush administration systematically took apart the social safety net, as Serious Pundit after Serious Pundit queued up to take their turn explaining why we absolutely had to cave into the neocons’ desire for a pointless war in Iraq, as every day revealed a new headline emphasizing that America was firmly in the hands of the religious right and the establishment left was enthusiastically welcoming our wingnut overlords.
Good satire then was like water in the desert. We were thirsty for any reminder that we hadn’t gone crazy, the world had, that the policies of our leaders were in fact as monstrous and deranged as they seemed to be. That things were not OK. The Onion, "The Daily Show," "Arrested Development" -- those were the comic voices that defined my coming of age, and I remember them all coming from a stance of incredulity, of “Can you believe this shit is really happening?”
Yes, nowadays everyone is sick of clickbait headlines saying “Jon Stewart demolishes this” and “Jon Stewart annihilates that” and “Jon Stewart eviscerates this random dude and makes a jump rope from his entrails.” But those headlines are a hangover from Jon Stewart breaking onto the public scene when we all really were stunned by how regularly and how effectively he made fools of people far more respectable than he was.
The guy who played the villain in "Death to Smoochy" became the thorn in the side to the president of the United States. The guy who came on after the prank call puppets killed CNN’s "Crossfire" just by coming onto the show and telling everyone how intellectually and morally bankrupt it was. Op-Ed after Op-Ed cranked out expressing shock that young people saw a comedian as their “most trusted name in news.”
On election night in 2004 more of us tuned in to Comedy Central than to “legitimate” news sources, because none of the legitimate news sources would openly voice the one truth about the election -- that the fact that the election was even close after the disasters in Fallujah and the exposé of Abu Ghraib and the lie about Saddam’s WMD proved that our country was mad.
When the results came in for Bush on the night of Nov. 2, 2004, the Serious Pundits -- Democrats and Republicans -- gathered together to analyze “values voters” and pontificate about how, if you thought about it from the right perspective, it made perfect sense to reelect a warmonger who’d sent thousands of American soldiers to pointless deaths just in case John Kerry might legalize gay marriage.
Jon Stewart didn’t. He tore up his index cards, slumped over in defeat, and wept.
It’s hard to think back to what it was like in a world where the mainstream media really did have the power to memory-hole stories like Bill Cosby’s lawsuit because they made advertisers uncomfortable. The pace of change is accelerating: The media landscape of only 10 years ago feels as foreign now as Walter Cronkite telling all of America “That’s the way it is” felt then.
It feels weird today, in a world of a thousand contending voices on Twitter and Tumblr and YouTube, to talk about how much it meant that there was one dude back then telling the truth. That there was someone in the mainstream media willing to kick a hole in the pusillanimous civil consensus of the respectable pundits, someone willing to call bullshit on the whole rotten circus, to reject the asinine convention that the party in power had to be given token respect simply because they were in power and to openly call them out as evil lunatics.
Jon Stewart felt like a Messiah. People told him he should run for president himself and were half-serious when they said it. (They made a movie about the concept with Robin Williams.) He felt real in a way that people who made a living talking about politics hardly ever feel.
And he kept denying the laurels we tried to heap on him. He repeatedly defaulted to saying he was “only a comedian,” that he, unlike the people he criticized, was an entertainer and not a scholar or politician or professional analyst and should not be taken seriously.
People have criticized that stance as a way to dodge accountability, to have it both ways -- to get to call powerful people out while denying that he himself wielded power.
And they’re right. But Stewart was also right.
Again, it’s easy to forget how sudden the transformation of "The Daily Show" into a political force was -- Stewart joined the show in 1999 when it was still a vehicle for surreal, trollish celebrity interviews, fake "Jeopardy!" games and wacky out-of-context clips. Then came the massive influx of real bizarre headlines to mock with the 2000 election. Then came the show’s hiatus after Sept. 11, 2001, and Jon Stewart’s moment of sincerity in his returning opening monologue that he never fully walked back from.
Then, almost before we in the audience knew what was going on, the jokes had entirely ceased to be about celebrity gossip and weird local-news-anchor haircuts and started to be about the systematic deceit of the American people. The occasional gags of showing politicians contradicting themselves by juxtaposing video clips together became the show’s bread and butter.
Jon Stewart and his staff went from producing a mostly-filler talk and variety show to becoming the Most Trusted Name in News -- all of them coming in from the entertainment industry rather than public policy or journalism. They were able to do what they did because they came in from the entertainment industry, because they started out with no access to official sources and no credibility among the press corps and therefore had nothing to lose.
Stewart didn’t ask for the job he ended up getting--if he’d announced in 1999 that he was going to turn Craig Kilborn’s show into an instrument for speaking truth to power he’d’ve been laughed out of the studio.
We thrust that position of power on him -- we demanded he play the role he did. Even if he’d wanted to take "The Daily Show" back in a lighter, fluffier direction we wouldn’t have let him--it was the political takedowns and the moralizing rants we tuned in for. We had legitimate journalists and politicians jumping onto the Jon Stewart train, demanding more of his brand of truth-telling; in 2005, Sen. Barack Obama told Jon Stewart, accurately, that “the only person more overhyped than me is you.”
It was like the plot of "Network" playing out in real life. Of course it was going to turn out our prophet had feet of clay. The whole thing started because he was made of clay -- because he was a non-political non-pundit suddenly thrust into a political pundit’s chair.
So yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the typical criticisms of Stewart--that he was at his best doing negative “takedowns” of hypocrites and phonies while being mediocre at best when trying to think up solutions. That he was a person who found himself constantly playing the antagonistic gadfly, the critic, and it was a role he wanted to escape without really knowing how--hence the confused, wishy-washy positivity of his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
But how hard can you really criticize someone for getting as far as he did starting with as little as he did? Yes, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was an ultimately content-free piece of flattery for the American public that carelessly threw antiwar activists under the bus and ended on the gross miscalculation of sending us away with an inspirational Kid Rock track. It was also a hell of a lot more of a response to Glenn Beck and the Tea Party than any legitimate politician or pundit was able to organize in 2010.
I do find it kind of ridiculous that Jon Stewart was invited to behind-the-scenes talks at the White House, playing the role of the modern-day Walter Cronkite, the ambassador of the people. I’m sure Jon Stewart did too. The overwhelming quality I sense from him is how tired he seems, how overwhelmed he is by the burden of having to go be Jon Stewart on camera every day. His weariness has been a part of his shtick since he slumped down in despair in November 2004; it resurfaces every time he sighs in exhausted exasperation as the coda to another rant about Donald Trump. Today, he bluntly describes his lifestyle of taking down, destroying, eviscerating, etc., as “turd mining” and seems to eagerly look forward to the day he doesn’t have to touch the turds anymore.
I get it. Look at me, a former insurance company flunky sitting here writing an Op-Ed acting like I’m qualified to analyze Jon Stewart one year after blowing up on Twitter over a game show. Look at my friend Linda, who went from minimum-wage employee to nationally known labor advocate after a viral forum post. Look at my friend Zoe, whose life’s mission has become the war against online harassment after a viral blog post by an evil ex.
The fickle eyeballs of the world thrust 15 minutes of fame -- and the responsibility that comes with it -- suddenly and without warning in today’s world. Jon Stewart going from B-list entertainer to our generation’s Cronkite arguably foreshadowed a world where anyone can be plucked from obscurity at a moment’s notice.
And his reaction was a lot like that of his latter-day followers. Wading into the fray with enthusiasm, striking out at bullshit wherever he could find it, pulling aggro and taking names -- because he felt a responsibility to do it, because he felt he could help people by doing it, but also because it felt so good to finally have that kind of power, to actually change something instead of just joking about it.
It’s not really realistic to expect someone not to fuck up when put in that situation. If you haven’t ever found yourself going viral, it’s hard to imagine the mind-set of a dude who got into the business fending off drunken hecklers at the Comedy Cellar finding himself overnight becoming a lightning rod for the right-wing media machine, waking up every morning to see what strategies a team of GOP operatives had devised for discrediting him.
No wonder he was snappishly defensive when challenged. I don’t for a moment excuse his melting down at Wyatt Cenac over Cenac criticizing him for a tasteless impression of Herman Cain. But, without excusing it, I empathize: Stewart having to play the Messiah, Stewart having to be the Conscience of Liberal America, Stewart facing the impossible task of being some kind of moral standard-bearer while also making people laugh every night.
Stewart falling back on his stand-up comic instincts to milk laughs out of a bit and then finding himself pilloried as The Real Racist by hypocritical hyenas at Fox News with the scent of blood in their nostrils -- and while he’s trying to figure out some clever, ironic way of wriggling out of the accusation that will live up to people’s expectations of the Untouchable Trickster Jon Stewart, here comes a stab in the back from his own writer’s room.
It wasn’t right. The whole situation wasn’t right. It was a product of the overhyped 2005 "Daily Show"; it was a product of Jon Stewart promising us too much because we demanded too much.
It was never fair of us to expect one well-meaning, well-spoken white dude to be the Voice of Liberal America. It wasn’t fair to Stewart for Cenac, who’d never met the man before working for him, to expect him to be a mentor and father figure because of the image he projected on TV. Just as it wasn’t fair for Cenac to bear the responsibility of being the sole Voice of Black America in that writer’s room telling Stewart when he’d gone too far.
I give Stewart credit for eventually apologizing to Cenac, for working to bring diverse voices into "The Daily Show," and for choosing to step aside this year in favor of Trevor Noah -- for coming to grips with the fact that no one well-meaning person, especially not a well-meaning middle-class white man, can or should bear that burden of trying to be Walter Cronkite.
When Cronkite died in 2009 we marked it as the end of an era, acknowledging that an increasingly diverse and fractured America could no longer be told “That’s the way it is” by one trusted news anchor.
But in 2009 we apparently still thought that young, liberal, countercultural America could be spoken for by one comedian--that Stewart’s bona fides as an outsider figure, a non-journalist, a non-pundit, an anti-Cronkite regular guy like us meant that we could trust him to be our voice.
The world’s not like that anymore. When Trevor Noah takes over Jon Stewart’s seat he’s going to be part of a much louder, noisier world -- one where people have their pick of snarky late-night political commentators riffing on the news, where people on Twitter will be much quicker to fling challenges and objections his way, where there’s not even a semblance of stable media consensus and any asshole who goes viral for any dumb reason can get a writing gig and everyone is yelling at each other all the time.
For better or for worse, there’s no way that Trevor Noah can ever feel as necessary as Jon Stewart did when he spoke out against the war in Iraq -- just as Stewart’s antiwar stance, much as we rooted for it in our dorm rooms in 2003, wasn’t nearly the bombshell that Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War was.
Jon Stewart was, in the end, a white savior. He was a better white savior than any of us had a right to expect, probably the best anyone in his position could have been. But it’s time for us to stop asking more from him than any one person can be expected to give -- to stop asking any person to be the spokesman for all of us, because to lay a trip like that on anyone’s shoulders is to set them up for pain and ourselves for disappointment.
Farewell, Jon Stewart. We won’t see your like again. And hopefully we won’t need to.