In the weeks leading up to Jon Stewart’s last day behind the desk of The Daily Show on August 5, those with a mind for it tried to make mischief out of the “revelation” that twice in the past, Stewart met with President Obama in the White House at the President’s request. The criticism was lobbed with lazy summer aim by conservative media outlets and padded with the charge that the encounters between the leader of the free world and America’s most trusted fake anchorman were “secret ” — never mind that the visits are available for all to see in the public White House log. The insinuation? The meetings were proof — proof! — that Stewart is a mouthpiece for the Obama administration.
To which an audience of millions of devotees of The Daily Show might reply, nice try, Fox News, but after 16 years of good work by Jon Stewart, we’re on to you. It is no secret that the host, who has run the show since 1999 — and who has made a personal decision to leave the show with no plans announced for future projects — is more in tune with progressive politics than with conservative thinking. But it is also clear that on his watch, The Daily Show has always been a non-partisan, equal-opportunity employer when it comes to skewering political mismanagement, hypocrisy, inequities, and general bullshit at home and abroad. Just ask former President Bill Clinton. Or Bibi Netanyahu. Or CNN. Or Jim Cramer. Obama only wishes Stewart could be used as a mouthpiece.
It is understandable, though, why, long after the events took place, reports of the Stewart-Obama meetings were coughed up as news: The Daily Show, under Stewart, has always had the power to make politicians and real news-gathering institutions squirm. Even more important, Stewart has used that power to make those who aren’t pols or media types care, just as he does, about the debilitating effects of mismanagement, hypocrisy, and general bullshit in the lives of ordinary people.
Of all the serious accomplishments for which the seasoned stand-up comic has been lauded (and in citing Stewart, I include his terrific staff of writers and producers over the years), the most important may be the intensity with which he honed a comedy of outraged engagement rather than ironic detachment, encouraging his followers to join him in digging into current events instead of tuning out. He conveyed the conviction that knowledge facilitates that engagement — and along the way, it also trumps bullshit. (Heh, I said Trump. I shall repeat the word no more.) And he bestowed on his audience the highest compliment of trusting them — us — to be as interested as he is in knowing what’s going on in the world. What’s worth getting mad about and what is hooey. What should be questioned and what should be dismissed with one of the countless wordless facial expressions with which Stewart could convey so much.
Hence his substantive interviews with the authors of serious books, and the creativity his staff devoted to such recurring segments as Mess’o Potamia, Clusterfuck to the White House, and Indecision 2012. Hence, too, his stinging criticism of the bungled launch of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, and of dysfunction in the Veterans Administration. Stewart could skewer Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, or any Middle East strong man with the rest of the late-night talk-show crew of clever hosts. But he held America to his toughest standards; the man is, in the end, an unironic patriot who expects more from a country that has so much going for it. Not to mention one that appears, as he observes it, to screw up unnecessarily in so many ways.
The result, as his legacy: Stewart has profoundly and permanently affected the delivery and reception of what politicians and institutions report as truth. Because of him, millions of viewers (many of them in the coveted millennial demographic — the generation, you know, otherwise uninterested in such traditional sources of coverage as newspapers and TV news shows and, like, anything with the word “news” in it) have a useful rudimentary sense of what’s going on in the world. And because of Stewart, those viewers understand that just because politicians, press secretaries, and on-air news readers say something on the air doesn’t make the thing fact. Stewart has done more to make real reporting look noble than anyone since the era of All the President’s Men. And he has, at times, with the deftest of wit and good manners, reversed the wind direction and cooled a guest hellbent on political spin, revealing the hot air.
And then there is this: Stewart took over a comedy show and, along the way, changed the business of media. He took a half-hour weeknightly format, in which actors plug their latest movies and fellow comedians run through their new material, and he turned his turf into the coolest civics salon on the air. In a late-night-talk-show culture heavy on white-guy writers, he (slowly, yes, slowly) welcomed the sensibilities of women, and people of color. He opened up conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. He launched an armload of outstanding performers into stardom as varied as their talents — Steven Colbert and Larry Wilmore, Steve Carell and Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Ed Helms. And he did this all while being…a short, Jewish yutz from New Jersey, born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. And owning the DNA. I think there may have also been childhood asthma involved.
And that, for this fan come to pay homage, is the greatest achievement of all by the retiring Daily Show host we now laud as Jon Stewart. Never before has there been such a self-identified Jewish man, doing a show with such important national and even global reach, who so confidently, knowledgeably, and hilariously wove Jewish references into the conversation. Never has the host of a late-night political/talk/comedy show so casually and un-neurotically incorporated the New Jersey Jew in him into such a matter-of-fact self-definition. Never has an entertainer with the power to sway public sentiment used his Jewish identity to disarm world leaders and big-brain scholars, Hollywood bigshots and military-industrial policy wonks, pretty actresses and hunky, goyish leading men.
Stewart’s presentation had nothing to do with religiosity (he isn’t observant) or apparently real neurosis in the manner of Woody Allen and Larry David. It has, instead, everything to do with being at ease with the comedic/psychic rhythms of assimilated Jewish-American life — the brisket, the kvetching, the talmudic enjoyment of argument, the call to social justice. And then incorporating those qualities into a guest-chair-and-host-desk format in which President Obama, Doris Kearns Goodwin, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Bill O’Reilly, and Madeleine Albright all felt eager to take part. (Brian Williams, too, but that’s a different story.)
It is the progressive urban Jew in Jon Stewart who is outraged by injustice and wants more from the people who ask him for his vote. It is the short Jersey Jew in him who understands the hard work of hustling for what one wants (a successful career in comedy, a government that doesn’t lie about reasons to go to war, the luxury of free time to complete the New York Times crossword puzzles he loves). It is the same American hyphenate who understands the responsibility he carries as an internationally famous public figure of giant influence and wealth who has not forgotten the irresistibility of a nice slice of lox.
It would be wrong to undervalue the grace with which Jon Stewart has incorporated his Jewishness into the work over the years for which we now salute him, because I suspect there will never be this kind of specimen again. Not in such a context. No doubt comedians will still make use of their Jewish experience as joke fodder. But we live in a post-Jewified pop culture now. Larry Wilmore is doing important talk-show commentary drawing on his African-American experience; Aasif Mandvi has blossomed in his chameleon Muslim-South Asian identity. Steven Colbert made quietly revolutionary use of his serious Catholicism in his years as a master political satirist on The Colbert Report, John Oliver and James Corden can’t help but acknowledge their Britishness in their very different interpretations of the role of headliner on American television.
But — pax Larry David — Jews in entertainment who incorporate their Jewishness into their work in the service of substantive commentary are becoming as passé as shtick from Borscht Belt comedians. Meanwhile, as Barack Obama approaches his last year in office, we live in times that are simultaneously multi-culti and ethnically, racially tense. In the post-newsprint world, where 1440-minute-a-day Twitter has replaced 24-hour CNN as the timeline of our lives, we have gotten numbingly used to expecting the quick punchline, the viral video, the click-and-forget approach to keeping up with the world as it changes. For Jon Stewart, a deeper study of what goes on in the world is his Torah. And in the guise of being America’s most trusted fake news anchor, he has, for 16 years, offered incisive commentary as his prayers for a better world.
Lisa Schwarzbaum, former critic for Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance writer based in New York City.