Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show, is retiring.
We can practically hear the internal wails of a thousand liberal millennials every time this is mentioned. Yes, the so-called comedy voice of a generation is stepping down, and the Daily Show and satirical news shows will never quite be the same.
It would be easy enough to write a pseudo-obituary to the death of the Daily Show as it once was, while praising the eminence of comic-supreme Jon Stewart, and be assured that our readers, for the most part, would solemnly shake their heads in agreement and think nothing of a Jon Stewart editorial. But this role has been played by a small legion of online and print publications.
Stewart’s departure offers us the unique opportunity, in the form of the glorious news hook, to discuss the role of the comic and satirist in journalism and politics. For you see, Jon Stewart and his contemporaries play a more important role in their respective spheres of influence than Stewart’s critics, and even Stewart himself, would readily admit.
The most prominent critique of Stewart is that he is the liberal equivalent of Fox News, offering half-truths, aphorisms and cynical, but ultimately trite, remarks to a bias and young audience hungry for a man “who cuts through the crap” of a fundamentally ridiculous world that only they can see. And, you know what, there is some truth to these claims.
The critiques are correct that the Daily Show had a substantial base of viewers — dominating the late-night ratings within the 18-34 demographics — and many of those viewers likely were ready to devour any scathing comment of politicians or mainstream media — regardless of the truth.
Certainly Stewart was not exactly a reporter, often tipping into farce in his “reporting” of the news or while deriding against the various scandals at the time.
Where the critiques are woefully mistaken is in thinking that this is all Jon Stewart was. They view this type of content as comedy dangerously masquerading as news; they misunderstand the importance of both comedy and commentary.
Consider the appearance of television, broadcasters and the 24-hour news channels, a la CNN. There is an inherent absurdity to journalism as is — frequently concerned with disassociating the individual’s identity from their writing — and the information age brought this absurdity to the forefront by presenting us with a mechanical individual who, during the entirety of the broadcast, must play the character of the anchor.
The already cynical and skeptical sensibilities of the post-50s generation were all the more agitated, as the controversies of a nation and a world were no longer relegated to print. Political sex scandals, war and even the age-old fears of advertisers and editorial agendas in the newsrooms themselves became all the more immediate as they came to life on their screen.
There was fervor for change among the viewership that the even-minded anchor could not satisfy. From this need was born a new age of satirists and commentators.
You see Jon Stewart and his ilk, as well as a new wave of media with inherent bias, Fox News and MSNBC, seem to be a response to the same phenomenon.
In truth, thinking of commentators and satirists as two separate entities is incorrect; satirists fall within the wide-range of commentators, but they fill a particular role. Recall the previous mention of a new generation of misanthropes and skeptics; satirists are their love, as there is something raw and counter-intuitively emotional to a true satirist’s work.
If you have seen Stewart’s show, then you know that his jokes with barbed edge and anger were more impactful because they shot such a sharp contrast with our expectations of the tongue in cheek comedian. Regardless of the truth, there is an undeniable sincerity to the satirist. They are diametrically opposed to the careful politicians, dry reporters and inauthentic commentators that dot the landscape.
The common defense of satirists is that they cut through the crap and are able to get to the heart of matters by breaking the traditional rule of etiquette. This is correct, but there are plenty of journalists that also cut deep with investigative reports that are ignored. Satirists are equally important in the modern era for who they appeal to as much as how they appeal, and they are appealing to a people who may otherwise be left behind. They offer a gateway to many with a fledgling interest in current events.
Stewart himself did often use the defense that he was a comic first, and his role was to set up the next phallic joke not to offer substantial commentary. But this is a discredit to himself and his viewers.
The fundamental truth of any commentary offered, comedic or not, is there will be a bias and there will be a multitude of angles missed. This is why a diet of news is suggested for the public, allowing for a tapestry of viewpoints to prevent laziness in understanding current affairs. But this does not mean that the commentator is inherently negative.
Even if you believe that Jon Stewart’s obvious liberal bias was a mechanism to brainwash a gullible viewership, there is no denying that Stewart could reach across the aisle to drudge up controversies that may have otherwise been ignored — Super Pacs and a host of small but important abuses of power. In mocking such activities, he was able to remind audiences just how absurd it is that these events were allowed to transpire.
There is a multitude of criticisms that we can lob at Stewart, some not missing the mark, but his legacy may not be in the accuracy or the hilarity of his show but the new wave of immensely popular satire it paved the way for — John Oliver and Stephen Colbert among them — in which comedians adopt the guise of those they mock. It is wholly a mistake to dismiss this new variety as mere comedians, but it is also a mistake to expect them to exist as reporters. They exist somewhere else in the nether, and they must continue to exist.