In defense of ‘The Daily Show’


Perhaps Jon Stewart was partially responding to Jamelle Bouie’s recent article in Slate, “Why Jon Stewart Was Bad for the Liberals Who Loved Him,” which referred to Stewart and his show as if he didn’t have months left to go as the 17-year host of “The Daily Show,” when, during the episode after the announcement that he was stepping down, Stewart asked, “Did I die“?

In any case, as someone who says he “grew up with” “The Daily Show,” attended Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and watched the show on a “semi-regular” basis for the better part of a decade, Bouie speaks as someone who has a profound misunderstanding of Stewart, his shtick and, indeed, for political satire in general and the continued need for heavy doses of it in modern political America.

Bouie’s main gripe about Stewart seems to be this:

The emblematic Stewart posture isn’t a joke or a witticism, it’s a sneer—or if we’re feeling kind, a gentle barb—coupled with a protest: I’m just a comedian.

… His protests to the contrary, Stewart is a pundit, and like many pundits, he’s wed to a kind of anti-politics, where genuine difference doesn’t exist (or isn’t as relevant as we think) and political problem-solving is mostly a matter of will, knowledge, and technocratic know-how.

Bouie here is replying to Stewart’s assertion that he is not, as some would label him, an influential political thinker, but “just a comedian” who is, at the end of the day, solely interested in making people laugh and not being, well, influential. When pressed, this has often been the answer Stewart himself has given whenever he runs the risk of being cast as something more than a comedian, and it may sound like he is failing to own up to what he really is — a comedian and a political satirist — but what other answer could he really give? His show is on a comedy network that is, in its most basic form, geared to generate laughter.

That said, no serious person who has actually paid attention to “The Daily Show” can conclude that Stewart completely separates his comedy on the show from ideology, that he just cracks jokes and “throws spitballs,” as he once said, in a vacuum, or that the show conveys the message that “government is only hypocrisy and dysfunction,” as Bouie contends. The latter is a job and a message for members of the far right, not a left of center liberal like Stewart, who, I would guess, thinks government has a role to play in people’s lives, and as such, it should function as efficiency and logically as possible. That it does not is deeply troubling, and this no doubt provides plenty of fodder for the show.

Bouie also argues that Stewart’s brand of liberalism, or at least the one he conveys on the air, is cynical all the way to the core and has no real substance, and is thus, a bad example for fellow liberals. Bouie’s example of this, his only example, comes not from Stewart’s own show, but from Stewart’s famous interview on “Crossfire” from 2004:

Take his Crossfire appearance. Lurking in his media criticism was a larger idea about the pointlessness of ideological combat. “To do a debate would be great,” he said, responding to protests from the hosts. “But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.” In the context of Begala and Carlson, this was a fair point. But in the larger world, it’s off. No, you’re not going to find sophisticated arguments on cable news, and to the extent that places like CNN are vehicles for nonsense and quasi-dadaist performance art, Stewart is right to mock and ridicule.

Cable, however, isn’t the only forum for debate, and most political conversations aren’t as shallow as the ones you see on TV. On op-ed pages and around dinner tables, Americans have substantive conversations about politics. And while the facts aren’t always right, the discussion is often valuable. Stewart gives short shrift to that kind of talk. Instead, in the world of The Daily Show, the only politics is cable politics, where venality rules, serious disputes are obscured, and cynicism is the only response that works.

Again, to say such a thing about Stewart’s show indicates that either Bouie has actually not watched much of “The Daily Show” — by his own admission, he was finishing up high school in 2004 — or he either does not appreciate or understand Stewart’s brand of satire. Although Bouie didn’t think it was important to provide any actual examples from “The Daily Show” to support his case, I’ll point out some segments from Stewart’s show — out of scores that I could select — that demonstrate that Stewart’s show goes beyond just sneering cynicism.

Sure, Stewart spends a lot of time mocking public officials and cable news channels, since there is so much idiocy that’s worthy of mocking, but to say that is all “The Daily Show” is, is just as short-sighted as the legions of lawmakers and pundits Stewart has hacked up these last 17 years.

In this clip, Stewart takes Obama to task and makes the point that although the president’s campaign was a well-oiled machine, Obama couldn’t seem to bring that level of efficiency to solving real problems after he entered the White House, namely streamlining the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

Here is Stewart speaking candidly about the Eric Garner injustice, which belies Stewart’s supposed choking cynicism:

And then there’s this:

The above clips show Stewart at his most sharp, most critical and decidedly least anticynical.

Bouie concludes with this:

The natural response to all of this is a version of Stewart’s protest—He’s just a comedian—and a refrain from The Dark Knight: Why so serious? The answer is easy: He’s influential. And for a generation of young liberals, his chief influence has been to make outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left. As a comedian and talk show host, Jon Stewart has been pretty funny. But as a pundit and player in our politics, he’s been a problem. And while I wish him luck in his next move, I’m glad he’s stepping from the stage.

How exactly has Stewart been a problem? We don’t really know since Bouie didn’t give us any concrete examples, other than to say the show is too harsh on government and expound on “The Daily Show’s” overt cynicism in somehow not engendering political discussion around the dinner table and in the op-ed pages. Would Bouie have felt better about the show if The Washington Post and The New York Times were buzzing every week with opinion pieces on Stewart’s latest shot across the bow? Probably not, but what “The Daily Show” has given us was an unrelenting and fearless critique of the people who are charged with leading this nation, both in theory and in practice, and commentary on the farce that is TV “journalism,” all by cutting through the dishonesty, disigenuity and obscurantism that is pervasive in both. And for these contributions alone Stewart, whenever he decides to vacate the chair, will leave an indelible gap in the national discourse, one that his successor will not easily fill.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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