So I finally got around to reading the massive piece on Jon Stewart in the new issue of Esquire and one thing is certain: Esquire scribe Tom Junod does not like Jon Stewart. He thinks Stewart is a pompous as$hole who’s oblivious to the fact that he’s a pompous as$hole. Further, Junod contends that we are all also oblivious to the fact that the beloved and revered Stewart is, in fact, a pompous as$hole. And he gets away with things most people could never get away with because we all look the other way. Stewart, Junod contends, is completely untouchable because he’s such a likeable humanist. And you know what — he may be right.
Was Jon Stewart being a dick when he was subjecting Jim Cramer to enhanced interrogation? Sure he was. He was also being a dick when he called Tucker Carlson a dick, and when he was preaching to Chris Wallace. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. What matters is that even when Stewart’s a dick, he is never the dick. It is Stewart’s unique talent for coming across as decent and well-meaning when he’s bullying and hectoring and self-righteous. And this is because his talent is not just for comedy and not just for media criticism or truth-telling; it’s for being — for remaining — likable.
Now, you have to understand Jon Stewart is just like everybody else: He can be a dick. His father took off when he was a kid, leaving a hole in his heart approximately the old man’s shoe size. He’s damaged and is capable of doing damage in return, especially in close quarters. There are plenty of Daily Show staffers, present and former, who love and revere their boss for his difficult brilliance. There are also plenty — mostly on the former side — who have been, well, fucked up by him and his need to dominate. When he arrived at The Daily Show in 1999, its humor was goofy and improvisational, based on the interplay between the fake-news host and the fake-news correspondents and dependent on whimsy and happenstance. But Stewart knew what he wanted right away, and it wasn’t that. He wanted the show to be more competitive, almost in a news-gathering sense, and he wanted it to have a point of view, which happened to be his own. There are writers and producers from the first five years of the show, both male and female, who are described as “battered wives”; hell, there are people who used to work for him who are scared to talk about him because they’re scared of not being able to work again. And before he pushed out the show’s co-creator, he notoriously threw a newspaper at her in a story meeting and then, according to a staffer, apologized to her later with the words “Sorry, that was the bad Jon — I try not to let him out…”
He’s been saying for ten years that he’s just a guy in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs; but he never gets spitballs thrown at him in return. He mocks without being mocked; he parodies without being parodied. It’s not that he can’t be; there are guys on Jon Stewart’s staff who do a wicked Jon Stewart. But in all the years he’s been doing The Daily Show — in all the years he’s been scribbling on that notepad, closing that mouth around his fist in spasms of mock feeling, and emitting that Olympian whinny — he’s never been parodied on Saturday Night Live. Why? Because according to Jim Downey, the longtime SNL writer who last year wrote the great Keith Olbermann parody for Ben Affleck, “you can only parody comedians when they’re not funny. Jon’s funny. Plus, we all like him.”
Junod goes on to accuse Stewart and the Daily Show of becoming the liberal version of the precise thing he professes to loathe: Fox News.
According to one former writer, the creative atmosphere at The Daily Show has gotten “doomier” since it became clear that Obama wasn’t going to fulfill his promise — and that Jon Stewart was not in a position either to help or to savage him. “You can see the strain in his interviews,” the writer says. “It used to be, ‘Hey, we’re a comedy show.’ Now it’s, ‘What we do is so hard.’ And it is hard. One of the reasons I finally left is that we were running out of targets. I was like, ‘Do we really want to make fun of Fox & Friends again? Really?'”
Indeed, there are days when Stewart himself says, “No Fox today — let’s go after a more elusive target.” But then, Fox is always there, and Stewart has formed a symbiotic relationship with it. He goes on O’Reilly’s show, O’Reilly goes on his; he devotes a broadcast to a parody of Beck’s farewell from Fox, Beck complains on his last show that Stewart is only funny because he employs so many writers. In fact, Stewart gives Fox’s hosts something to complain about — confirmation that the media is “biased” and the game rigged against them — but Fox gives Stewart a reason to exist, and he’s been obsessed with Roger Ailes ever since he went to O’Reilly’s studio and was summoned into Ailes’s office. He stayed an hour and came out a freaked-out admirer, like the crazy newscaster in Network once Ned Beatty got through with him. It wasn’t just that Ailes asked him, right off the bat, “How are your kids?” and then berated him for hating conservatives; it wasn’t even that both men are intensely concerned about what people think of them and have no qualms about trying to influence how they’re portrayed. It’s that Ailes is all about power and so has accepted the obligation that Stewart has proudly refused. You want to know the difference between the Left and the Right in America? The Right has Roger Ailes, and the Left has Jon Stewart; the Right has an evil genius, while the Left contents itself with a genius of perceived non-evil.
I can’t say that I agree with everything in Junod’s lengthy screed, but I did find myself nodding my head in agreement a few times. If you’re a fan of Stewart and the show, I highly encourage you to give the whole thing a read when you have time.