Jon Stewart, who announced on his show tonight that he is going to retire from The Daily Show later this year, had this habit in public life that I found absolutely infuriating until about seven seconds after word of his impending retirement leaked online this evening. Stewart would take some strong political stance on his show, or as a guest on someone else’s show, and then when he was challenged on it, he wouldn’t cede exactly, but he would immediately defend himself with some variation on, “Hey, I’m just a comedian!”
This is common practice for those in comedy, to use real world events as fodder for their routines until push comes to shove. That’s your job, they’d say to the journalist/political commentator/politician who just told him he was wrong, or that if he was really so upset about whatever the issue was, maybe he should get off the sidelines and try to do something. I’m just trying to get some laughs. His famous line was, “C’mon, we’re just the show on after Crank Yankers.” This always struck me as disingenuous, an abdication of the responsibility of someone who certainly seemed to believe what he was saying on television; Stewart wanted the cachet of politics, the source material, but not the exchange of ideas. I thought it led to a sometimes surface-thin view of matters. I thought it limited him.
But when someone of the stature of Stewart retires, when you suddenly have to reckon with a world without him, it makes you reevaluate matters a bit. Even if you were more a fan of Stephen Colbert’s absurdity than Stewart’s occasional look-at-these-idiots grandstanding—a stylistic, subjective preference rather than one that makes much of a judgment on effectiveness—the influence of Stewart is really quite staggering. Stewart turned a show that was once a tired retread of SNL’s “Weekend Update” into a manifesto of impotent rage, the one sane man screaming at a world gone mad. He took comedy and turned it into his version of truth. Every comedian claims to want to do that; Stewart had the talent and the cojones to do it.
I remember reading an interview with one of the Daily Show writers who stayed on staff after Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn. He said he was elated. “I can write real things now,” he said. “Jon can do anything.” People forget that when Stewart took over The Daily Show, it was considered a comedown for him. This was a man who had been rumored to be the next David Letterman for so long that it was an ongoing subplot on The Larry Sanders Show. (That was a different, Gen X Jon Stewart, one with long hair, a leather jacket and a perpetual pack of smokes.) Why was Jon Stewart, the heir apparent, the comedian all the kids loved and the parents didn’t get, doing a show on Comedy Central. But Stewart knew. He was ambitious and gifted enough to see where comedy was going, and where his real skills resided. The joke of Stewart wasn’t that he was some liberal comedian who was going to stick it to those stiff shirts and soulless suits; that’s the oldest trick in the book. Stewart’s genius turned the mix of comedy and politics into a sort of rationalist warfare. He took the audience’s frustrations and fury with the whole process and gave it a voice. Colbert pointed out how ridiculous this all was, but that wasn’t Stewart’s bag; he wanted you to know how much of an asshole everyone was. He was far more moral, far more outraged. He took himself more seriously than most comedians, which was often his Achilles’ heel. (His first show after 9/11, unlike Letterman’s, is difficult to sit through now; you want him to take some deep breaths, remember he’s on TV and just chill for a second.) But that self-righteousness gave his show an undeniable momentum—and power.
This was why Stewart’s show was never better than during the Bush years, when Stewart’s self-seriousness was most desperately needed, not as a “liberal” matter but one of simple public discourse. While we watched idly as a group of men remade the planet without really asking us, Stewart began to scream. Stewart was one of the first skeptics of the Iraq war, of President Bush, of Donald Rumsfeld’s press conferences, all of it, and as you saw him have more and more material handed to him each night, you slowly began to realize: Oh shit they don’t know what they’re doing, do they? What Stewart was doing wasn’t satire: It was the simply calling of bullshit, every night, when no one else was doing so, when the country was pleading for it. It was brilliant, and it was transcendent.
I’m not sure Stewart ever quite recovered after Bush left office. He still had plenty to be angry about, but he began to modulate it, turning it into a desire for “civility” and “discourse,” noble goals but not exactly the foundation of comedy. By the time he hosted his “Rally For Sanity,” he was sounding a lot less like a fiery comedian telling truth to power and more like a media figure preaching empty platitudes to his followers. It turned Stewart more into a liberal icon than the guy raining down truth bombs with punchlines; even if you agreed with him, you found yourself trusting him a little less. But the skills remained: Even a lessened Stewart, even a Stewart who had begun to waver in his commitment (challenging himself with his legitimately good war drama Rosewater), was still a comedic force. He was too funny to not be truthful … and too truthful not to be funny.
Because that’s what this was all along. The reason Stewart would pull the “I’m just a comedian!” card wasn’t because he was looking for a cowardly way out of the conversation. It was a true representation of his worldview. Comedy and truth weren’t separate pursuits: They walked hand-in-hand the whole time. Stewart ended up becoming a public advocate and polarizing figure because the only way he knew to be funny was to expose what he considered lies, to shout the truth from the mountaintop at loud as he could. That’s what comedians are supposed to do. That Stewart became so powerful at it, and became such a compelling, vital public figure, isn’t a sign of him getting too big for his comedian britches: It’s a sign that ultimately comedy could only take him so far. (It’s another reason for Rosewater: Stewart was clearly tiring of laughing.) The source of Stewart’s comedy was his unending search for truth, the need to just shake people into getting it. After a while, though, people stop listening to what you say and just pay attention to who’s saying it. In his stepping away, Stewart seems to have recognized that.
The irony of course is that Stewart was so important to listen to because he was a comedian. It allowed him access to truths the rest of us didn’t have. So now that he’s leaving, I’m pretty sure he was right all along. He was just a comedian, using jokes—the truth—to point us to what he found truly important. It was the only way it could have been done. It was just a show on basic cable after Crank Yankers. Thank God for that.