Those of us who came of age politically during the George W. Bush years remember just how bleak American politics was back then. When I attended high school, from 2003 to 2007, the country was still caught up in war fever and there was little organized left opposition; the great “progressive” hope of those years was, of all people, Howard Dean. While Donald Trump’s recent presidency was a nightmare, the years after 9/11 were worse in many ways, thanks to the stultifying nationalism and relentless racism and anti-Muslim xenophobia that surrounded the War on Terror.
Many of us who grew up then have fond memories of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which was a source of comfort amid the insanity of those times. We relished Stewart’s scathing analysis of Bush, the Republican Party, and the Fox News noise machine. Stewart deserves a great deal of credit: his Daily Show was a milestone in political comedy. Prior to Stewart’s tenure as host, the Daily Show’s targets tended to be Hollywood celebrities and “field pieces often centered on true believers in UFOs and aliens.” As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik noted, when Stewart began, “late night political humor was… about foibles and politicians’ particular characteristics and tics and failures—the Monica Lewinsky joke, the George Bush-is-kind-of-dumb joke.” Stewart brought a moral seriousness to political comedy; when he mocked media figures, it was often for violating an implicit code of values. Witness his infamous interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer after the financial crisis. Stewart very seriously, and earnestly, tore Cramer to shreds for giving ordinary people horrible financial advice and for failing to act like a real economic journalist. Stewart showed clip after clip of Cramer admitting to knowing exactly how Wall Street’s most ethically dubious practices work, and demanded Cramer account for himself, which he couldn’t. Nobody on television was doing this kind of work, and it was deeply satisfying to watch. It was a model of what journalists ought to have been doing during the financial crisis.
Witness, too, Stewart’s legendary 2004 appearance on CNN’s excruciating “debate” show, Crossfire, in which Stewart took the hosts (Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson) to task for presenting shallow political theater rather than substantive debate. It was clear that Stewart had a sincere interest in improving the health of American political discourse, and he was fiercely critical of a media that, he believed, stoked conflict and had no sincere interest in the issues.
But Stewart’s critiques of the media and politicians, while often savage, were also often premised on the centrist idea that American politics needed more civility and less “partisanship.” On Crossfire he positioned himself as a kind of peacemaker who believed that the problem with the show was that it framed politics in binary terms as a fight between left and right:
Can I say something very quickly? Why do we have to fight? The two of you? Can’t we just—say something nice about John Kerry right now.
I like John. I care about John Kerry.
And something about President Bush.
He’ll be unemployed soon? I failed the test. I’m sorry.
See, I made the effort anyway.
No, actually, I knew Bush in Texas a little bit. And the truth is, he’s actually a great guy. He’s not a very good president. But he’s actually a very good person. I don’t think you should have to hate to oppose somebody, but it makes it easier.
Why do you argue, the two of you? I hate to see it. […] I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media and they’re hurting us. […]
Let me get this straight. If the indictment is — if the indictment is — and I have seen you say this […] that Crossfire reduces everything, as I said in the intro, to left, right, black, white.
Well, it’s because, see, we’re a debate show.
No, no, no, no, that would be great. […] I would love to see a debate show. […] But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition. […] It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. […]
You had John Kerry on your show and you sniff his throne and you’re accusing us of partisan hackery? […]
You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. […] You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably. […] Please stop.
Certainly, much of this is true. CNN does indeed fail miserably at its responsibility to the public discourse, and as Luke Savage notes, over 15 years later, Stewart’s appearance “remains a solid and satisfying critique of cable news and the noxious culture on which it thrives.” But Stewart’s assertion that the liberal commentator should be obligated to occasionally “say something nice about George W. Bush” might actually manage to make CNN even worse. American politics is often about left and right: there are deep ideological divides in this country that are quite real. The right believes in preserving traditional social and economic hierarchies, the left in dismantling them. The right is skeptical of democracy, the left believes in expanding it. Conservatives are nationalists and patriots who think the U.S. is justified in pursuing its self-interest even if it means inflicting significant human suffering on other countries, leftists are internationalists and anti-imperialists. The right believes taxation is theft, the left believes in strong public services and wealth redistribution. These are deep conflicts of vision and values.
While Stewart was more interested in substance than many journalists, he often appeared to share a view of American politics similar to that of Barack Obama, who felt that red-blue divides were illusory, and that if Americans got past angry talk and recrimination, they would be able to come together and solve their problems. As Poniewozik explained:
“There was also this element that developed that was simply about being a voice for comity. There was this old-fashioned streak in Stewart, which I think he shares with Obama in a way, where he misses this time where maybe there wasn’t bipartisan consensus on everything, but at least there were spaces in the middle where people could meet and agree to disagree and get things done. And through the Obama years, it’s important to note that this sometimes got the show in trouble, especially with the more strident parts of the left.”
Nowhere was this tendency more on display than in the bizarre “Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear)” that Stewart and Stephen Colbert held on the Washington mall in 2010. A parody of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, the event was intended to speak for Americans who weren’t rabidly partisan, and to mock political extremism on both sides. Stewart suggested protest signs like “Take it down a notch for America” and “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” Fan-made signs at the rally said things like: “Stark raving reasonable.” “Moderate women are hot.” “My opinion changes with new information.” “Things are pretty okay.” The event attracted an estimated 215,000 people.
Stewart himself said that the event was against the “idea that the conflict [in America] is left versus right.” This was too much even for Bill Maher, who said that it promoted the false idea that “the left is just as violent and cruel as the right” and we should “not try to pretend the insanity is equally distributed in both parties.” In The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests, Stewart pronounces himself baffled and frustrated by critics of the rally:
They can’t fathom the idea of going down and having fun and putting on a show. They immediately assume that there must be, for every single moment, something calculated as a political campaign, not as entertainment. […] It’s hard not to react emotionally to this feeling of standing in front of the Capitol. It’s incredible. The lawn in front of the Congress, and you’re having a goofy rally and there’s thousands of people there who are having a good time. People said to us afterward, “Did that work out for you guys?” We’re like “Hell, yes!” It was awesome. We had an amazing day. And then they’re like “But you didn’t increase Democratic voter turnout. You failed us.” Oh, okay. I didn’t know that. …
Indeed, the rally occurred days before the 2010 midterm elections in which Democrats lost a substantial number of Congressional seats, so there was a possible call to action that Stewart could have given his 215,000 assembled fans, beyond “take it down a notch.” But for a committed nonpartisan, the idea of pushing for concrete political action that favored one party over another would have been horrifying.
Stewart’s defense also displays his longstanding tendency to try to “have his cake and eat it too” on whether he is “just a comedian” or is trying to change American politics. He portrays the rally as mere “entertainment,” as if this exempts it from political criticism (and makes those who do try to criticize seem like humorless partisans). But he also wants to critique the “extremes”of the American left and right, and advocate a different kind of politics.
When Stewart went on Crossfire, Tucker Carlson confronted him about this tendency to both do advocacy and evade critiques about the kind of advocacy he was doing. Carlson pointed out that Stewart himself, when he had the opportunity to interview John Kerry, lobbed mostly softball questions at him. Stewart replied that as a comedian, he had no obligation to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. But why not? If you are serious about the issues, and you have a platform, and you clearly want to do more than just comedy, and your work could actually make an impact, isn’t there an obligation to ask the questions you think ought to be answered? Stewart never had a satisfactory answer for this, in part because he wrongly thought that it was possible to be “non-ideological.” But as Maher noted, treating the left and right as similarly extreme is a political stance, and a completely wrongheaded one.
After over a half decade of absence, Stewart has a new show on AppleTV+, and it shows both why he was so valuable as a commentator and why his work was ultimately so frustrating. Entitled The Problem With Jon Stewart, the program recycles many elements of the Daily Show’s format (e.g., Stewart plays a clip from the news of someone saying something absurd, then makes a face and a sarcastic comment), but is even more of an “activist” show. Stewart appears to have accepted the fact that he has the power to draw attention to important causes, and the first two episodes of The Problem explicitly ask audience members to consider supporting various activists.
The Problem With Jon Stewart is more serious than the Daily Show ever was, and long stretches of it are completely earnest and almost entirely lacking in jokes. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, Stewart has made a step forward by ditching the irritating “just a comedian making jokes” posture and admitting that he cares about things and he wants the audience to care about those things too. This might have something to do with the fact that Stewart’s former colleague John Oliver has produced a highly successful show that does not attempt to feign neutrality or shy away from advocacy. Oliver tackles the most serious issues imaginable—subprime lending, charter schools, Guantánamo, nuclear waste management, felon disenfranchisement, the opioid crisis, housing discrimination, the Green New Deal, prison labor—and makes no attempt to pretend he is not firmly on one side of the issue. Unlike Stewart, who criticized excessive “outrage” as politically unhealthy, Oliver has made a trademark out of sputtering, indignant fury, and it has meant the show has repeatedly been able to cause actual positive changes in policy.
But if The Problem With Jon Stewart gets past one of the past problems with Stewart—the insistence that comedy shouldn’t have an obligation to help anyone—it still displays his fundamentally centrist political instincts. Episode 1, “War,” is not actually about war, but is about a particular set of war victims: U.S. veterans suffering health problems from exposure to toxic “burn pits” on overseas bases. Stewart shows compellingly that these veterans have been cruelly denied health coverage, and pleads with the country to better support those who fight in its wars. He interviews veterans and family members who have suffered toxic exposure and run into bureaucratic obstacles to receiving treatment. He then interviews the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, who gives weaselly explanations for why the VA does not provide adequate care for these veterans. Stewart is at his best in this interview, pressing McDonough over and over on McDonough’s evasive answers and irritating the secretary to the point where he snaps that he “doesn’t give a shit what [Stewart] thinks.” At the end of the episode, Stewart encourages viewers to visit Burnpits360.org and support the fight to get these vets the care they need. “We support our troops unless they actually need support,” he says, condemning “the kind of performative patriotism that barely seems to register the suffering that their sacrifice sometimes brings.”
But while it’s obvious that the injustice Stewart is addressing is real, it feels as if he has picked an issue deliberately for being as “safe” as possible to take a stand on. Stewart calls veterans’ healthcare “bipartisan and noncontroversial” at the beginning of the episode, which he means as a joke: it should be noncontroversial, and Stewart wants us to be outraged that it isn’t. But it’s hard to think that there’s anyone in the country that would actively oppose treating sick veterans for war-related injuries. It’s indeed tragic that bureaucratic inertia at the Department of Veterans Affairs is causing people to be denied care, but Stewart has deliberately chosen a cause that only a monster would oppose. (He appears to have chosen the issue in part because of his successful advocacy campaign for 9/11 first responders.)
There’s nothing particularly objectionable to devoting an entire episode of his show to veterans’ healthcare. What is strange is that the episode is called “War,” and yet the only aspect of America’s wars that is discussed is the VA’s failure to adequately treat veterans. Shortly before the episode aired, the United States military blew up a family in Afghanistan with a drone, and then lied and said the victims had been terrorists. The United States may not support its troops enough, but the biggest empathy failure when it comes to war in this country is the way the foreign victims of U.S. aggression are dehumanized and devalued. I would respect Stewart far more in his advocacy role if one segment of his War show was dedicated to U.S. soldiers, but another was dedicated to Gazan children maimed by U.S.-supplied Israeli weapons, whose healthcare is even worse than that provided by the U.S. government to its military veterans.
So, at the beginning of his new show, Stewart plays it safe, picking an issue that allows him to be a crusader without having to take any kind of obvious “left-right” stance. Episode 2 of The Problem, “Freedom,” is only slightly better. Stewart interviews dissidents from Egypt, the Philippines, and Venezuela to ask them about how authoritarian regimes come about and what lessons the United States needs to learn if it is to maintain its democratic institutions. To his credit, Stewart rejects the idea that Venezuela is a “socialist” country, and sees all three as examples of one common tendency. The dissidents he interviews are lively and smart, and it’s a sad reminder how rare it is to see the political situations of other countries given substantive discussion on TV. There is one slightly subversive moment, in which Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef encourages Americans to “keep to what you do best, toppling democracies in other countries,” which brings an “ooh” from the audience, but it’s a reminder of how much the rest of the show sticks to unthreatening observations about how veterans are good and dictatorships are bad. (During the panel discussion, Venezuelan exile Francisco Marquez offers an observation that does not appear to be intended as a dig at Stewart, but that offers a reminder of Stewart’s toothlessness: “Jon, you’ve had experiences with different causes, I remember your march, I think it was against insanity or something along those lines.”)
Critics have been lukewarm about The Problem With Jon Stewart, with NPR saying it “feels like a stitched-together pastiche of items from Stewart’s old show and a few other programs he inspired.” But “pastiche” is not the issue; Stewart’s Daily Show format worked for him. The problem is, as it has always been, that Jon Stewart has a political worldview that is naive and frustrating. He is afraid to seem too partisan, wants (like Obama) to be a unifier rather than a divider, and does not sufficiently question American nationalistic orthodoxy. Stewart often went soft when he needed to be vicious. He went after Tucker Carlson for wearing a bowtie and “fighting” too much—but what matters far more is Carlson’s horrible politics. (Carlson has turned into a frothing white nationalist who spreads vicious anti-immigrant lies). The fact that Crossfire was “partisan” was never its central problem.
I watched Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in my dorm room every night in college, and I loved it. But soon after, Barack Obama was elected, and Stewart seemed to lose his focus. It was easy to go after the more extreme hypocrisies and lies of the Bush administration and Fox, but what was needed in the Obama era was a firm set of left political commitments against which Obama’s administration could be measured. Stewart, a committed post-partisan, didn’t quite know what to say, and his new program shows that he still hasn’t noticed that his non-ideological ideology is morally inadequate. Political comedy would not be as good without Jon Stewart’s Daily Show having paved the way, but Stewart shows us what we need to move beyond if we are to have truly incisive and effective satire.