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Appreciation: The Un-American Activity of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show

On the eve of his final night behind The Daily Show desk, Finlay Macdonald pays tribute to Jon Stewart.

One of The Daily Show’s funniest lines is the one that kicks it off every night: “From Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters in New York …” Whatever Jon Stewart might do next, the deliberately portentous voiceover defines the central premise and mission statement of the show – to make fun with and of the news. In the process of this, it also serves as a running parody of the demented 24-hour global news culture, beamed incessantly at a defenceless planet from a million circling satellites.

Stewart – whose final show airs Thursday night in the US, Friday morning our time – has routinely deflected the grander claims made on the show’s behalf. To the suggestion it has become the media’s conscience and is more reliable than the programmes and networks it satirises he said, thank you, but it’s still just humour and it won’t change the world. What’s more, his audience remained small compared to the media behemoths, whose rancid politics and woeful journalism provided the methane for his most combustible comedy.

Fair enough. But you only had to listen to the response of his (never glimpsed) studio audience to know how important Stewart’s voice had become. There was a palpable sense of relief behind the laughter and whooping when the host laid into some bloated hypocrite from Fox News, or made hand-job gestures over footage of Republican presidential candidates paying tribute to their billionaire benefactors. Thank God someone saw it the same way, they seemed to be saying, and thank God they were allowed their own TV show to say it.

Being a liberal in America can’t be easy, after all. You don’t need to be a student of Chomsky to know that the boundaries of permissible thought in the mainstream US media are pretty confined. Things we might find laughably obvious – or obviously laughable – from our small imperial outpost can be almost invisible or unsayable inside the beating beltway heart of empire. Stewart fulfilled the role of reassuring court jester for his domestic audience – telling jokes to power as it were – but for us he was a reminder of another kind of America. This was an America capable of self-examination and self-deprecation, an alternative patriotism that didn’t need to chant “U-S-A” and wave the flag in your face.

As anyone who has dared to critically comment publicly on the foreign policy of the United States will know, the default response is often a blithe assertion that one is being “anti-American” (which is in turn a by-product of one’s unexamined left wing bias and feeble misreading of history). To engage was to lose, in my experience, since the touchingly faith-based prejudices of one’s accusers were generally impervious to reason. But it could be intimidating nonetheless, and I only wish Jon Stewart had been available back when I was furiously penning Listener editorials about the evils of invading Iraq, or trying to explain the origins of 9/11 (a perilous exercise that usually saw me labelled as one of Osama bin Laden’s “useful idiots”).

There were alternative voices coming out of the US, of course, so it wasn’t as if one was completely alone. But what was missing was that fundamental sense of the absurd – that tacit acknowledgment of the black cosmic joke that underscores all our efforts to win arguments or win wars. In that sense, Jon Stewart has probably done more good for the image of America abroad than any of the presidents he has made fun of in his 17 years on air.

That he did all that with such a light touch and lack of hubris is more remarkable than has been given credit, and is largely down to his skill and experience as a comedian. During its final few weeks, the show aired some beautifully edited montages of the host’s less-appreciated talents – including amazing compilations of him simply making ridiculous noises and singing. It’s a rare comedian who combines penetrating political insight with a love of physical shtick and an ability to ululate. That he could harness one in the service of the other was remarkable to behold.

It’s also difficult to appreciate from this vantage just how difficult some of Stewart’s positions must have been for him – not just with the political establishment, which is a given for any critic, but with his own iconoclastic instincts. As one of the final shows made abundantly clear, the Fox world view placed him squarely in the Obama camp and branded him an outright apologist, if not an actual stooge. As Stewart himself responded, he’d been way more critical of Obama than Fox ever was about Bush. Aside from the sheer stupidity of the accusation, what clearly grated was how difficult it is to avoid typecasting in the current brain-dead political economy of the mass media.

Such is the paradox of rebellious celebrity. You can’t become the darling of the liberal left in the world capital of showbiz without becoming an insider in the process. He conceded as much, and acknowledged his general lack of seriousness when it came to interviewing the rich and powerful. Occasionally he would set about asking the questions so many “real” journalists wouldn’t, including of the journalists themselves.

But much of the time he just coasted on natural wit and a forgiving audience. His encounter last week with Tom “Going Clear” Cruise was a case in point. In a chummy puff piece for the latest Mission Impossible sequel there was not a mention of any Scientology weirdness, let alone the scandals revealed in Alex Gibney’s incredible documentary. And yet, to his credit, Stewart dropped in an almost subliminal suggestion that, in his next action movie, Cruise should be dropped into a volcano (read up on “Xenu” here, if you’re confused).

Stewart’s gift was to remain self-aware about the Faustian bargain all intelligent entertainers make, to stay knowing and as humble as a Jersey boy made good can, and to get out while he was ahead. To steal his own closing line, that is his – and our – moment of Zen.


Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show airs in New Zealand Friday on Comedy Central

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