On Thursday night, Comedy Central mainstay Jon Stewart will sign off of his program, The Daily Show, for the last time. Stewart, 52, has been the key face for the entire network for 16 years; his replacement, Trevor Noah, will not come close to replacing his idolized status.
For nearly two decades, Stewart has been a bugaboo of the right, masquerading as an evenhanded comedian who will target anything funny while focusing his ire on conservatives. His signoff will be a welcome development for both the right and the credibility of the media.
Stewart’s “clown nose on, clown nose off” routine enchanted a generation of young people. Even though Stewart was born during the tail end of the Kennedy administration, young Americans see cynicism as a brand: being a smartass is for young people. And Stewart was a smartass. Young people never bothered to pay attention that his smartass routine allowed him to play them for fools.
Stewart never appeared to take politics seriously. He continually noted to people that his was a “fake news” show – wink, wink, but we’re more real than the real news, because that’s full of liars! Stewart’s basic premise was this: comedy is news, and news is comedy. His audience wasn’t wrong to respond to the signal that he was attempting a news show, and they weren’t wrong to take him seriously. That was his entire gimmick: he was a comedian, for God’s sake, and he was still more credible than the rest of the media!
His audience was wrong to mistake his cynical attitude about conservative politics for a generalized cynicism about the political universe or the leftist media, however.
Stewart himself claimed to be acidic about the state of politics across the board, but he reserved his cynicism for one side of the political aisle. That’s why Stewart called a rally along with political blackface artist Stephen Colbert in response to the Tea Party, not in response to Occupy Wall Street. It’s why Stewart browbeat CNBC’s Jim Cramer in wholly serious fashion and routinely turns serious to shout the f-word at Fox News hosts.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s overall enchantment with President Obama blurred the line between fawning coverage and outright worship. From defending Obamacare to championing Obama’s deal with Iran, from hammering Obama’s critics to making jokes about how decent a man President Obama is, Stewart never wavered from his overall quest: to push his politics of the left, while maintaining the ruse – with a straight face, ironically – that all he cared about were ratings.
That’s why Stewart has struggled in recent weeks to explain acting as Charley McCarthy to President Obama’s Edgar Bergen, attempting to laugh it off as a media-created scandal – an amazing about face for a member of the media who has spent his career puncturing the perverse relationship between media members and political figures.
That’s why the left universally mourns him leaving The Daily Show behind. “He made the position what it was and he was smart and talented enough to imagine what this could be,” fellow comedian-turned-political-hack Senator Al Franken (D-MN) explained. President Obama himself appeared repeatedly on Stewart’s program, most recently to joke that he wanted to use an executive order to keep Stewart on-air. “I cannot believe you’re leaving before me,” Obama said. “I’m going to issue an executive order. Jon Stewart cannot leave the show. It’s being challenged in the courts.” It’s difficult to imagine any other comedian earning such accolades from the infamously egoistic commander-in-chief.
And while Stewart was undoubtedly talented – or rather, his writers were – Stewart also had the easiest job in media. He appeared nightly before an audience of simpletons, cued to laugh and cheer by his funny faces. He didn’t even need jokes: he could just run a clip from Fox News, any clip, and then screw his face up in his patented “I don’t get it, I must be stupid, no, actually, they’re stupid” expression, raise his voice in incredulity, and then shrug. This had his trained seals rolling in the aisles. Jon Stewart without his live laugh track would be dead on arrival.
Stewart could call people liars or joke about their personal lives in a way that made him seem more honest than newscasters. But he wasn’t. He was merely a member of the media elite, hobnobbing with the people he covered on the left and then pretending to be a media critic on the side. Brian Williams could never quite get away with criticizing the new media because they had broken more news than he did. But Stewart could get away with shouting at the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire, saying the show was “bad for America,” and calling Tucker Carlson a “dick,” because he could always say he was just a cynical guy being cynical about politics — even if he wasn’t cynical about the power of government. As he apparently told Crossfire co-host Paul Begala, “Imus came to Washington and bashed you guys, and he got like 300 new stations. So I think this will work out for me.”
It did. Stewart will go down in television history as a critical icon of the left, closer to Walter Cronkite than Richard Pryor. People trusted Cronkite because he was a newsman; people trusted Stewart because he bashed newsmen. Both Cronkite and Stewart were hard-core leftists dedicated to their causes, using the patina of objectivity granted by the labels “news” and “comedy,” respectively. But Cronkite wasn’t news, and Stewart wasn’t comedy. They were both motivated political figures, expertly using the tools of their trade to push their agenda.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.