I’ve had pretty mixed feelings since news broke of Jon Stewart’s planned departure from the Daily Show broke earlier this month. In the dark days of the Bush years, when it seemed the FOX News-style of right-wing, propagandistic infotainment was ascendant right along with America’s newly-rediscovered bloodthirstiness and appetite for overseas tomfoolery, Jon Stewart (along with Keith Olbermann) was one of the very few beacons of light in that darkness. He gave our outrage – and the far-more-correct-than-not analysis that propelled it – voice. Jon Stewart let each of us who were sitting in our isolated little chambers, looking in disbelieving horror at what our country was doing to itself as a result of 9/11 and the elevation of George W. Bush to the Presidency, feel as if we weren’t alone.
That was no small thing, in those days when Dubya’s popularity soared to 90% and remained above 70% for nine months and at or above 60% for almost two and half years, even as his administration devised black sites and torture programs, invaded Iraq, and began the process of ruining the economy by cutting taxes drastically even as he ramped up military spending. If you remember those early days, after the initial shock of 9/11 and the we’re-all-in-this-together feelings it inspired in all of us began to wear off as the drumbeats of war with countries that hadn’t attacked us and the early murmurs of a program of torture began to spread, if you looked around then and saw nearly everyone else still rushing pell-mell to praise the President and you thought “I must be crazy, I’m the only one who sees how insane this is,” Jon Stewart was one of the few voices who helped you realize you weren’t the only one. And he was hilarious while doing it.
Truth is, Stewart’s always been hilarious. That’s why he’s so successful – he’s unusually good at what he does. But it’s important to remember that what he does – by his own repeated admission – is comedy. That point can’t be overlooked, because it’s here that my admiration of and appreciation for Jon Stewart falters. Stewart’s always said his job was to “sit in the back of the room and shoot spitballs,” and that’s fair enough as far as it goes — but given his rise to prominence as one of the most-trusted names in news, as America’s news establishment in general has become more and more artificial and staged, less like the Cronkites and Murrows of yesterday, it doesn’t go far enough anymore. Stewart repeatedly claimed – and likely still claims, though I haven’t heard him specifically mention it lately (and it likely no longer matter much, with his announcement of his impending retirement) – that his job was not to join the battlefield and take sides, but to remain above or aside the fray, to preserve his ability to view it dispassionately and be funny about it.
That’s why John Oliver’s been such a breath of fresh air since launching his own show on HBO: he studied at the foot of the master (and, to be fair, elsewhere as well), but he didn’t come away from the experience feeling as if he needed to do the comic equivalent of “both sides do it” in order to be able to remain primarily a comedian. Just watching Oliver ripping into the tobacco companies in this sketch (he calls their demand letter to tiny African nation Togo “bullshit” around the 14:20 mark, and ends by fairly daring tobacco behemoth Philip Morris to sue him for suggesting their mascot for advertisements should be a diseased lung in a cowboy hat) warms my DFH heart, and gives me hope for the future of comedy, that it can perhaps return to its noblest calling of all – being able to say the truth about the powerful that everyone wants to hear but is also too afraid to say themselves. It’s too bad Stewart was either never interested in this or maybe just never found this groove, but if Jon Stewart’s legacy is nothing more than Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, it will have been more than enough. Behold: