The Daily Show IS Jon Stewart

Published on August 9th, 2011

James on how Jon Stewart became The Daily Show and vice-versa, and if his position in the media is fair

This year marks the 15th anniversary of The Daily Show and AOL TV decided to celebrate with this list of 15 things people love about The Daily Show. The list is correct about many of the factors people enjoy about the show but one of them deserves a closer look, as it is a belief many people hold that may not be fair. The list states that they enjoy when Stewart ‘takes the show on the road,’ by which they mean they love when Jon Stewart is interviewed on other shows. I’m not sure if it’s fair to the rest of the people who work on that show to imply that Jon Stewart IS The Daily Show, but it seems that is what most people have in their minds. While I’m sure he would be quick to credit the writers, correspondents and crew of the show for making it possible, it seems widely held that Jon Stewart is The Daily Show and The Daily Show is Jon Stewart. The 2 are so closely associated with one another that most people don’t remember there was a time when the daily show existed without jon stewart. (In fact from 1996-99 it was hosted by Craig Kilborn. I don’t know whether this lapse in the collective memory is a result of how much people associate Jon Stewart with the show or how little they give a fuck about Craig Kilborn. I’m pretty certain in 2 years, despite hosting 3 tv shows for a combined 11 years, most people will know him solely as “the dick from Old School.”) Obviously working on one show for so long will lead to the face of the program being associated with it, but this case goes beyond that to the point where the man and the show aren’t merely linked but are the same thing.

In order to understand how this happened, it’s important to look at what kind of person Jon Stewart is on The Daily Show. Although he is often referred to as a satirist, his satire on the show is not the way we normally think about satire. The word usually brings up people more like Jonathan Swift or, more similar to Stewart, Stephen Colbert, those who commit to a worldview they feel is unreasonable or immoral in order highlight the absurdity of how their intellectual opponents think. Jon Stewart pretends to be a news anchor, but doesn’t play it in a fully satirical way in which he can’t recognize how ridiculous what’s going on around him. Colbert is a proper satirist in this sense as the real Stephen Colbert, the comedian/actor and admitted liberal, chose to create an ultra-conservative character, who happens to also be named Stephen Colbert, and have him host a politically-themed pundit show modelled on The O’Reilly Factor. The (fictional) host of The Colbert Report believes in the extremely right-wing things he is saying, but the actor who is playing him does not. We are not meant to relate to Colbert, but find humour in his factual and ethical disconnect from reality.

This is not the case with Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart, the comedian and admitted liberal, is the same guy that hosts the show. Sure, we do see limited bits of acting from Stewart, but distinctly not in the same way we see from Colbert. During the opening segment of the show, where Stewart does his monologue/news delivery, a bit of acting will be employed, but it’s never a far stretch. A small bit of thespian work is required for a style of joke that is very common on The Daily Show, a formula that looks like this:

1)      A video clip is shown.

2)      Stewart thinks aloud that something from the clip logically leads to a certain conclusion.

3)       A second clip shows how wrong he was.

4)      Stewart appears shocked/disappointed/incredulous and the audience laughs.

The humour comes from his logical conclusion immediately proven to be incorrect, thereby highlighting the absurdity of the situation. This formula comprises a large majority of the jokes in the opening third of the program. Of course, Stewart knows what the second clip is going to be but acts unaware for maximum effect. This is usually the most acting Stewart ever performs in the show. However, it is important to point out that even though he is acting, he is only acting as a slightly different Jon Stewart. He is pretending as though he doesn’t know what clip is coming up but he is saying things that Jon Stewart would say, or has said in his mind, when he knew a little bit less of the situation, before being aware of the information in the second clip. He is acting like a slightly less informed version of himself and therefore the audience is always able to relate to him. He is not as surprised by the clip as he pretends to be but acts that way to illustrate what a large difference there is between the way things are and the way the should be.

This is why people feel connected to Jon Stewart and why the show functions as a personal outlet for his beliefs. It is Jon Stewart on that show, not a character, saying things publicly that he truly believes. He has a personal tone on The Daily Show and people can feel closer to him for it. He laughs at his own jokes and he mentions his own shortcomings and insecurities. He openly shows his frustrations and excitement depending on the situation. This is not how other people read the news and it makes people feel very close to Stewart. Public figures, whether they be real people or characters in film or television, are easier to relate to when we get to know more of their personality traits and flaws and Stewart is open about these things. His self-deprecating humour (particularly on his pretty bad record of film/TV acting choices outside of The Daily Show) and personal anecdotes from his life make him more than the guy on screen reading off a teleprompter (but for some reason still shuffling paper) and elevates him to someone we feel like we know and care about. As stated above, he only ever acts like slight variations of himself, so we are provided with a constant opportunity to understand him further. He seems like a well-grounded, normal dude, a dude from Jersey who likes Springsteen and sports, like a buddy of yours who just happens to have a wildly successful TV show. He displays who he is on his show and viewers enjoy that person, which, along with his success, I credit for why his recent acting career sees him almost only playing himself.

The other reason people seemed to connect with him is that much of his show is about the media, which plays such a large role in his target audience’s lives. He doesn’t make all his jokes about the events in politics and society; many of his jokes come from how those events are presented in the mainstream media. We are at a point where news events are a 3-step process:

1) Something happens.

2) That something is reported on.

3) The individual (me/you) perceives, understands and deals with the initial event.

The third step is the only one that most people can be a part of. Typically, unless you are involved in the news media or journalism, you are strictly a consumer of the reports (news shows, articles, newspapers etc.) from Step 2. The Daily Show hangs out with the common man in Step 3, looking not just at the event but on how it was presented. As the media becomes as much of the story as the event itself, The Daily Show stays on our level by looking at both steps 1 and 2 equally. Stewart’s frustrations with the failings of the media put him on the same level as most of his viewers.

One thing the show seems determined to highlight is exactly how much the stories presentation affects our understanding of it and its ramifications. The media is shown to be a powerful tool that isn’t always used to inform but to artificially shape the public’s opinion for commercial and political reasons. There are many ways that the program tries to reduce this often-abused powers.

Stewart attempts to remove the authority of the position of news anchor and by extension the media in general by the way he conducts himself on the show. He is clumsy with props and dwells on perceived shortcomings of himself and the program, reminding the viewer that the people reading you the ‘real’ news are also just fallible humans capable of making mistakes and therefore their words should not be taken as gospel. He seems to be saying, “look how silly I am. What makes them any better?” No news program comes down on tablets from the sky and everything is a construction, subject to the political leanings, intelligence and subjective viewpoints of those making the program and The Daily Show tries to not let us forget this. When his correspondents stand in front of a greenscreen when claiming to be in Iraq, or when Stewart pretends to be someone else doing a voice over for a silent video clip and the camera cuts back too early to him speaking, we are reminded of what a construction all news programs are. While all the jokes I listed above are funny for simple reasons, they also work to display news programs and media representations as a series of decisions, perceptions and creations, not strictly objective fact. While The Daily Show is certainly part of the media, and an increasingly important and popular one, people find it easier to relate to as it constantly acts like individual citizens, consumers (or victims) of the news media.

Jon Stewart’s personable conduct and delivery allow people to get closer to him and the show’s habit of attempting to put itself outside of mainstream media allow people to get closer to the show, but Stewart’s personal beliefs bridge the two together, causing people to see them as one and the same. While much of the content of the program criticizes certain news channels and personalities for trying to hide how their politics affects their reporting, The Daily Show absolutely has a political lean to it that is unarguably left of centre. Its supporters are quick to point out that Stewart does insult Democrats too which is simultaneously correct and pointless. Stewart’s criticisms of the left are usually about a weakness in their character resulting in a failure to put lefty politics in place. On the other hand, he criticizes the right for bad policy. The difference is that the Democrats are bad politicians who don’t play the game well enough to get the right thing done, while Republicans are bad people who play the politics game well enough to get the wrong thing done. Stewart has been vocal about feeling disappointed by Obama, despite shedding a few tears of joy on live television when Obama was elected, but it is usually that he didn’t do what he promised, not that what he promised was wrong. This is an important difference that highlights that Stewart has problems with people on the right and left, but he still is one of those on the left. Knowing his political opinions makes him seem like a fuller person which allows viewers to feel closer to him and luckily for him his demographic is youth, who are disproportionately liberal.

However, for those who aren’t liberal, this political tinge to a program that criticizes programs that Stewart feels are biased is highly hypocritical. A similar point that his critics like to bring up is the double standard that he can criticize the journalistic integrity of anyone he wants but that he is beyond such criticism because he is on a comedy show. These 2 arguments can be found in perhaps Stewart’s most famous ‘taking the show on the road; experience on CNN’s Crossfire. I’m sure you know the story by now but to sum it up, Stewart went on that program and criticized the show and the media at large for not really debating or bringing news to people but merely exchanging talking points and being “partisan hacks.”

The video is definitely worth a watch as it is funny, interesting and pretty unique. But if you don’t have 14 minutes, at least go to the 12:25 mark and watch Stewart call Tucker Carlson a dick and Carlson respond with best/worst/worst again awkward laugh ever.

Crossfire was cancelled not long after and CNN president Jonathan Klein referenced Stewart’s appearance on the show as part of his explanation for the decision, saying that, “I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” While Crossfire was a bad show, and Carlson is a bowtie-wearing dick, I’m not certain he’s entirely wrong. Stewart does seem to be getting the best of both worlds, free to criticize people with no expectations for himself. Lately he has provided lots of in-depth, hard-hitting interviews while still remaining respectful, resulting in rare, honest, progressive debates that benefit the discourse and the public but he doesn’t seem himself as a powerful voice in politics, even though he is. He and the show are one and the same so he will never be able to separate his politics, his disappointment in mainstream media and desire to be funny from the program he’s on. This doesn’t seem fair but it is a result of his show being a part of himself and vice versa. As the man and the show are effectively the same thing, perhaps I just need to accept that people have flaws, and therefore people/show hybrids have flaws, so I can accept a bit of unfairness and hypocricy in exchange for speaking truth to power and improving dialogue in this country while I laugh my ass off. And that’s more than enough to give me a moment of Zen.

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