We take Jon Stewart for granted now, and expect way too much from him. Stop and thank him for restoring our sanity
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.