Our Moment of Zen
With August 6th rapidly approaching, in a few short days we will finally say our solemn farewell to political satirist Jon Stewart. Few programs have received the type of fidelity I so rightfully granted The Daily Show – for one good reason: Stewart himself. As his tenure comes to a close, not only will we lose one of the most dependable sources of nightly humor over the last seventeen years, but also a sense of levelheadedness that the world needs right now.
Taking over for Craig Kilborn in January 1999, Stewart made a name for himself mocking the absurdities of the contemporary American political landscape, and perhaps even more so, the “legitimate” news outlets that pander to those politics. Stewart’s time as host of The Daily Show will forever be characterized by a call for reason. Seldom I would spend a night without watching him and his sharp writing team carefully dissecting the words and behavior of members of the United States Congress, or other pundits.
His biting rhetoric was a nightly ritual I grew up with, sitting down every night looking forward to seeing who he would take down next. I recall a law class during my time as an undergraduate in which the professor admitted that he felt people my age should not receive their information from The Daily Show, as the humor reduces the salience of the story. While probably true, this misses the greater purpose of the program. Stewart has never, in his entire tenure, intended to provide me with information, regularly lamenting that idea that true news outlets looked to him as a contemporary. Perhaps best exemplified in his guest appearance on CNN’s Crossfire during the 2004 presidential election. Keeping away from the issues themselves, Stewart demanded that the hosts stop poisoning America with their bi-partisan “theatre”. His nightly diatribes served as a constant plea for levelheaded thinking, and rational deliberation, regardless of the issue. Despite admitting to have a liberal lean, rarely would a situation find itself clouded by his personal politics. He fought against hypocrisy, not people.
Filling the vacuum created by Stewart’s departure will no doubt prove difficult for the already controversial Trevor Noah. What makes him such a great host, and different from other satirical newsmen is how straight he plays his program. While Stephen Colbert held up a funhouse mirror to conservative pundits, Stewart has always rationally and directly called them out on their inadequacies. Along with that, his self-deprecating, modest approach to how he runs The Daily Show makes him easy to digest. Interviews between Stewart and his guests, at least in my opinion, came off as much more hard hitting than the vaudeville caricature of Colbert. On top of that, outside of their programs, Stewart engaged in legitimate debate while Colbert stayed in character – providing an essential balance.
Stewart’s moderate approach was what made him so charming in the first place. Many compare him to the likes of HBO’s Bill Maher, but Maher attacks headlines with the same level of malice as his conservative counterparts, making him just as culpable in Stewart’s war on absurdity. John Oliver addresses headlines from generally the same point of view as Stewart but spends more time offering solutions, rather than his mentor’s “are you kidding me?” befuddlement.
So here we find ourselves, one week away from the end of an era. An inspiration to a generation, Stewart paved the way for numerous late night hosts to follow him, but few have ever matched his level of entertainment. We need to remember the lessons endowed to us by Jon Stewart and his nightly presence: thoughtfulness, calmness, and rational thinking.