Jon Stewart made Democrats feel good. That's not a compliment

April 24, 2022

There’s a long essay about Jon Stewart in The Atlantic trying to explain why the comedian’s recent output doesn’t have the same edge or impact as his work on The Daily Show. While I haven’t watched his Apple show, nor have I listened to his podcast, so I can’t comment on the piece’s analysis in that regard, I was a regular viewer of Stewart’s Daily Show, and I think the piece falls short in explaining what that program did well and why it was ultimately a failure.

First, I think it’s worth remembering there were, effectively, two distinct elements of The Daily Show. One side involved the live interviews, in which Stewart, at his best, was an intelligent and curious interlocutor whose positioning as “just a comedian” allowed him to disarm subjects with basic questions that seasoned journalists tended to take for granted or considered not worth their time to explore, yet revealed much more than the subject wished.

One notable example is his 2004 interview of Republican Representative Henry Bonilla (with an unofficial transcript published on The Daily Kos way back when), in which he probed the congressman about the Republican messaging process during that year’s Democratic convention. Essentially, he got Bonilla to show his own ass on GOP spinning about John Kerry and John Edwards by asking him to explain the basis for calling the Democratic nominees extremely liberal and when Bonilla tried to smile his way through it, explaining the truth back to him.

While his main targets were Republicans (more on that in a bit), he also asked pointed questions of Democrats, including Barack Obama in 2010 (part 1, part 2, part 3, and transcript on a rando’s Blogspot — 2010 internet was wild, man).

The second mode of The Daily Show was the Weekend Update-ish “news anchor” rundown, and the correspondent pieces, which I group together both because they were much more dependent on the show’s writing staff, and because they operated on a different wavelength than the guest interviews. Those segments occasionally illuminated leaders’ politics and clarified the simple issues at play the way Stewart’s best interviews did, but more often they were about exposing cruelty and hypocrisy, and holding the cruel and hypocritical up for mockery. I searched for a random 2009 segment and found this one about Republican fearmongering about Obama which stands as a pretty good example of the median Daily Show segment at the time.

The Atlantic piece wrestles with whether any of this made a difference, and I think it’s pretty clear The Daily Show with Jon Stewart mattered insomuch as it contributed to hardening partisan beliefs, mostly by making Democrats feel good about being Democrats. The show certainly skewered Republican cruelty and hypocrisy, but had precious little to say about Democratic cruelty and hypocrisy, or, alternatively, Democratic fecklessness (“We can’t govern!”). Your mileage may vary on how popular you think a show that went after Republicans and Democrats more evenly would have been, but I doubt it would have been more popular because that would have changed the fundamental function of the show in our culture.

While a show like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has its audience, it and the rest of the current coterie of white male late night hosts (and Saturday Night Live) are all broadly doing the same thing The Daily Show did when they venture into political comedy: making liberals feel good about themselves. They are, emphatically, not changing conservatives’ minds or motivating liberals to take direct action in support of a cause or set of causes.

The Democratic Party, post-Lyndon Johnson, has been afraid of itself, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart can be seen as a stark expression of rank-and-file Democrats coping with the party’s self-imposed impotence by laughing at all the shitty things happening, because what else are you going to do? For decades, powerful Democrats have believed the way to win elections is to convince Republicans to vote for them, which means also being extremely cautious about upsetting Republican voters. In that context, it makes sense The Daily Show focused almost entirely on Republican shittiness, because otherwise the typical liberal viewer would have to focus on the shittiness of the people for whom they’d voted. LOL.

Maybe Stewart doesn’t resonate anymore because he’s phoning it in. Maybe other people are doing his schtick better. Maybe he doesn’t have that killer writers’ room anymore and he’s focusing on the mode of infotainment embodied by his Daily Show interviews, which doesn’t provide the same pathos as the “written” segments. And maybe there are more people who recognize that at the highest levels of government and celebrity, shame barely matters anymore, and so comedy or commentary that merely aims to highlight cruelty and hypocrisy don’t do anything because the powerful cannot be shamed into changing. Not that shame would have worked in 2006, either (see: Harry Whittington).

(Photo: "Jon Stewart" by Peabody Awards. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)