Whether He Liked It Or Not, Jon Stewart Should Have Done More With His Influence
Whether he likes it or not, Jon Stewart became one of the most important pillars of American media and politics over the last decade and a half. Although he and many others will be quick to point out how his show was never meant to be more than satire, comedy, unfortunately for him, it grew to be much more than that for a lot of people. For better or for worse, The Daily Show had become how many people got their news. It was one of the only ways they were exposed to the various injustices of the world. That might not be a good thing, to rely on 80 minutes of comedy a week to stay informed, but it was true.
And the problem with Jon Stewart was that he never wanted to acknowledge that.
I don’t know if I ever wanted The Daily Show to be something different than it was, honestly. It would probably be insincere to suggest that, considering the hours of entertainment I've derived from the show and the insight it generated over the years. Not to mention that it also gave us Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and a plethora of other hilarious actors, writers and comedians whose careers Stewart helped launch. What the Daily Show is and always has been is what made it great, and I’m glad that never changed.
But what’s kind of irked me in the weeks leading up to Stewart's departure from the show is the way he decided to handle it; with grace and humility. That probably sounds like a weird thing to say, in fact I readily admit that it's a ridiculous statement. Still, Stewart never seemed to want to acknowledge his role, his importance in American politics, and that wound up being a problem. For everything he did and said, everything he exposed from political injustice to media bias, it never affected any change. In fact in his closing comments on Thursday’s final show, he was quick to point out how things are markedly worse than they were when he took over the show.
I’m not suggesting Jon Stewart could have or should have changed the world. After all, he’s right in saying that his show was at its core satire. But it did, at some point, become more than it, it did affect people, and there’s a part of me that wants to think Stewart could have at least done something with that trust he earned. Maybe if he didn't have such a casual, laissez-faire attitude towards his role, he wouldn't have had to make a ten minute speech about bullshit as his signoff. Instead, it became a vicious circle. Stewart's own criticism was stifled by his assertion that he was always being facetious, which in turn made him an easy target for Fox News and Fox News an easy target for him.
His final weeks on The Daily Show were vapid. Business as usual, flooded with the usual lambasting of Fox News, CNN or Donald Trump, an endless parade of stupidity in politics, as we've come to expect. Interviews filled with meaningless interactions with celebrities. Rinse, repeat. Unlike before, however, there didn’t seem to be any substance behind the way he was positing it all. Instead of using the added attention around his retirement to say anything meaningful, he conducted himself as he normally would have, because of his own humility, because he doesn’t see himself as important, and as a result, he missed opportunities.
Look no further than his interview with Tom Cruise, the usual fluff piece for an actor promoting a movie, and how it was criticized by Going Clear documentarian Alex Gibney for not bringing up Scientology. Not that Stewart should have said anything to Cruise; we don’t even know what he thinks of Scientology or if it even merited bringing up. But the fact that one of his final interviews was four minutes of rabblerousing with the most PR actor of all time says a lot about how he viewed himself and what these final episodes meant. Sure, he was supposed to have Ted Cruz on (before the senator cancelled on him), but his last month should have been 90% hard-hitting Ted Cruz interviews, and 10% fluffy Louis C.K. interviews.
After all, Stewart himself has always been vocal about his biggest regret from the show, when he failed to grill Donald Rumsfeld the way he had hoped during their 2011 interview. Stewart's biggest regret is an interview that wasn't as hard-hitting as he wanted it to be. Meanwhile, his final couple of months on The Daily Show felt like months of failed Rumsfeld interviews. Stewart should have been scorching earth, saying everything he always wanted to say and taking no prisoners.
The perfect summation of all of this is the final The Daily Show Without Jon Stewart podcast, which finally had Stewart himself on as a guest. Instead of saying anything meaningful about his final weeks on the show, they spent 25 minutes talking about the snacks available to the crew backstage. Which in and of itself is funny, and I certainly get the joke, but doesn't that speak volumes about Stewart's nonchalant, disconnected opinion of himself? He's just a guy who likes egg sandwiches. He's the guy who can affect change, who can have the buns changed from Kaiser rolls to English muffins. He just doesn't seem to realize what that might mean for some people.
And that discourages me, at least when it comes to Stewart's future. You have to wonder what he'll do next. Interviews like that make me think that he belongs less on WTF with Marc Maron and more as a character on Comedy Bang Bang (which I admit sounds amazing either way). Stewart assures us this isn't the end of his legacy, but nothing he said or did all summer suggested otherwise.
Just look at what John Oliver does on Last Week Tonight. He too understands and proclaims himself as a satirist, but he's found the perfect balance between comedy and something that can affect change, between his long monologues and his calls to action. Most of his rants won't bring forth any change, but they're sophisticated and passionate. I hate to say it, but Stewart may have lost some of that passion recently. And maybe that’s why he decided to leave. Maybe the fact that he left was the most self-aware thing he’s done in a while.
There may be a lot of negativity on display here, but trust me when I say that Jon Stewart will be missed. I’m not yet sold on Trevor Noah or if he can replicate what Stewart created, but I do hope that his youth and enthusiasm will at least bring back a sense of idealism that The Daily Show had been missing lately. And hopefully, Stewart will rekindle his passion during his time off and come back with something different, something stronger, something that will once again blow our minds and chance the landscape. That’s all we ever wanted out of him in the first place, no matter how hard he tried to convince us otherwise.