U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Uncertain Legacy of Jon Stewart

Today will mark the last time Jon Stewart hosts The Daily Show. This provides plenty of opportunities for reflection – in the past decade, Stewart has appeared prominently in discussions about public discourse, comedy, irony, and a contemporary political sphere driven by the media and online social networking. For this blog, in particular, we could ask the obvious question: has Stewart been serving all these years as one of our predominant public intellectuals?

Jon Stewart, public intellectual -- whether he likes it or not.

Jon Stewart, public intellectual — whether he likes it or not.

I think the obvious answer to this is yes, especially as I’m particularly unimpressed by artificial boundaries and rules (and exceptions to rules) that are often posited for those categorized as comedians. However, that’s not what I’m going to focus on in this post; if you find my confidence on the question outrageous, feel free to bring it up in the comments, but for now I’m going to leave it there.

Rather I want to zoom up on what I thought was a quietly brilliant segment on last night’s penultimate episode of the The Daily Show. Jon began by drawing our attention to the battle-infused rhetoric of political reporting by highlighting all the headlines where he supposedly “eviscerated,” “destroyed” or “crushed” an ideological opponent. Knowing Jon’s preference for “civil” debate, there was a subtle critique already about how, ironically enough, his own work wasn’t often employed to encourage such civility. However, he then pivoted to displaying how badly these depictions of his supposed destruction of bad politics or politicians square with reality. No matter how many clips he showed of Fox News anchors being hypocritical, shameless, or racist, and no matter how many times he exposed corruption on Wall Street, “Bullshit Mountain” went happily on constructing their mountain of bullshit, and CEOs went happily on collecting their huge paychecks.

So I couldn’t help but think that Stewart used this segment to signal to those upset about his retirement that they ought to, to put it bluntly, calm the fuck down. After he announced his imminent retirement, Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show was often met with dismay. Never mind that John Oliver was already doing what Stewart did and, in my opinion, doing it much better, or that Larry Wilmore has now replaced what was becoming a tiring routine by Stephen Colbert with a more serious version of the comedy + political commentary mix-up with The Nightly Show. Rather, Jon seemed to suggest, those who implored him to stay on at The Daily Show seriously overestimated his influence. Even the acids of comedy, it appears, can’t really erode a political culture corrupt to the bone. So much for the power of satire.

Then again, I’m not so sure. As with most battles that involve the realm of ideas, the political fight against the neoliberal right (since the cultural or religious right, I have to agree with Andrew Hartman, is very close to being vanquished) is likely to be a long-term affair. Consequently, I don’t think we can make any reliable assessment of Stewart’s impact on American politics until years, indeed decades, from now. There are young adults and teenagers, after all, who have come of age watching Stewart, or at least were aware of him on a semi-regular basis as he popped up in their social media feeds. As a voice of the liberal left, Stewart has likely done much to popularize certain sensibilities and assumptions, some drawing upon old liberal basics and others more particular to the political battles of our time. So although the segment was intended, in the classic mode of self-effacing humility very typical of Stewart’s comedy, to declare his irrelevance, the jury will remain out on the question for quite some time, I think.

Of course, we could also have a conversation here about exactly what type of politics Stewart contributed to, and whether all of his interventions were unambiguously positive or progressive. Yet that’s another topic I don’t necessarily want to elaborate on, although again, I’m happy to participate in if readers want to go in that direction. (This comment thread shall be a general assembly; do what you want with it!) Because regardless of his shortcomings, Stewart and his now-independent apprentices have been one of the two places on basic cable and television to find what passes, I think, for decent, thoughtful and not-totally-awful political commentary. The other, as far as I am concerned, is ESPN. So, this is where we are today – I find better reporting, analysis, and honest grappling with the state of power and justice in the United States on the mainstream cable channels for comedy and sports entertainment than I do on any of the channels supposedly devoted to understanding the news. Well, I think I’ll just end with that sad thought. Thanks for all the laughs, Jon.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I view Jon Stewart’s stint on the Daily Show as being part of a long tradition in television. Is Jon Stewart really that different than the great Pat Paulsen on The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy hour? Isn’t The Daily Show an updated version of an HBO series called Not Necessarily the News?

    Stephen Colbert gets credit for satirizing Bill O’Reilly, but wasn’t Dan Aykroyd portrayal of James Kilpatrick equally brilliant with Jane Curtin as the hapless Shana Alexander in their Saturday Night Live’s parody of the Point/Counterpoint debates on 60 Minutes? Shouldn’t Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s fans know about Jane Curtin being their inspiration. Even satirical news has a history. And political commentary goes back to Will Rogers and Mark Twain.

    My biggest complaint with Jon Stewart was that when he actually touched a nerve, he would retreat with the excuse of, “I’m just a comedian.”

    I also thought the author’s use of profanity in this post was entirely appropriate and justified. Perhaps we can have a discussion of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

    • I completely agree about Jon’s unconvincing attempt to back away from his role by taking the old “I’m just a comedian” route. As both a way to claim you don’t have any power and excuse yourself from questionable content (Jon rarely did the latter but many other comedians do), it is entirely unconvincing. I am curious as to where this excuse originated and why so many in our society seem to think it legitimate.

      And thanks for being ok with the language; that’s not the usual response I get!

    • I’ve always understood Stewart’s “I’m just a comedian” line to be a reminder to viewers that the kind of analysis and reporting he does should be what we expect from regular news journalism, and that it is ironic that we can pretty much get it only from a news-comedy show — It’s him wondering aloud why a comedian is doing journalism while “real” journalists just churn out the same old white-washed drivel every night. It’s a jab at the news media.

      • I don’t think so, Derek. In one of his bits where he was responding to critics, Jon said that “I’m not moving into your box [journalism], you are moving into mine [comedy].” Ie, he doesn’t seem himself as doing journalism, he sees himself as using journalism for comedic content, and it just so happens that today’s journalism is so pathetic that not a lot of work has to be done to make it funny.

        Every time Stewart has really been asked to comment on the fact that he essentially became a news source, he would back away from this and say no, that’s not our job; we are doing news-based comedy here, but we are not a news source.

  2. it matters little what it’s called. instead, it’s what it is that matters the most, and what you got with stewart was the truth — and we’ll miss that. everything else is meaningless. as far as what you did with what he told you was strictly up to you.

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