When Jon Stewart made a now-iconic appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004, co-host Tucker Carlson listened to Stewart for a time and lamented, “I thought you were going to be funny. Be funny.”
Of course, people expect Stewart to be funny most of the time. Before joining “The Daily Show,” where his run ends tonight, Stewart was known mainly as a comedian and sometime comic actor. He sometimes puts a highly comic spin on his interviews, as when he asked LeBron James if he was from another planet.
Even when going for laughs, Stewart is a very serious person. But both his seriousness and his humor were served by what he considered the absurd elements of modern politics and culture.
Satirist or funny commentator?
It’s easy to compare Stewart to satirists such as Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. But it’s just as reasonable to compare him to Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow — commentators with clear political points of view — only with more jokes. (And a lot better ones.)
That “Crossfire” included his excoriation of the show for its approach to political discussion, and it is often on lists of Stewart’s greatest moments. So are his emotional post-9/11 monologue and his vigorous battling with financial tout Jim Cramer over how he failed to warn investors about the 2008 financial collapse. He wrote and directed his first feature film, “Rosewater,” about a journalist accused by Iran of being a spy, who was imprisoned and tortured for five months.
In the Cramer interview, Stewart indicated that he would rather just be funny — that Cramer and his colleagues should “start getting back to fundamentals on the reporting … I can go back to making fart noises and funny faces.” But while Stewart has not quelled the funny impulse — he responded to Mike Huckabee’s comments not long ago with only grunting noises and funny faces — neither has he stopped being serious when the news of the day is just too nuts to ignore.
Plenty of nuttiness
And the news gives him plenty of nuttiness. One reason that he made “Rosewater” was that the Iranians used a satirical piece on “The Daily Show” as proof that the journalist was a spy. He recently mocked the Obama administration combatting the social-media-savvy Islamic State with paper leaflets.
Then there’s the mountain in Alaska named for a president who never went there.
That piece involved attempts to change Mount McKinley, named after the former president and Ohioan William McKinley, to Denali, the name many Alaskans use for it. “The Daily Show” detailed the lack of a real connection between Alaska and McKinley, and even had a local historian admitting that McKinley was just an average president.
While Stewart himself did not report the segment, it certainly felt Stewart-inspired, said Kimberly Kenney, curator of the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton (who took a lot of local heat for her assessment of McKinley). There was plenty of seriousness in the way the show approached the segment: They had 50 questions for Kenney, “all rooted in the details of the (name) debate.”
Plenty of preparation
“Although the show might appear flip and funny on the surface,” Kenney said, “there is a great deal of preparation and research that goes on behind-the-scenes.”
Stewart, after all, wants to get it right. That has made him influential in politics. The Politico website, for example, discovered that Stewart made two quiet visits to the Obama White House, and it was clear they weren’t just for tea and cookies.
Those visits also underscore his liberal leanings, which are unabashedly public. He has been criticized at times for going easy on politicians he likes, at least when they are guests on his show. (He can also get soft with some celebrities, including Tom Cruise during his appearance last week.) At the same time, when he sees absurdity in his political friends, he points it out.
As I said before, he’s a political commentator. Just the way he can sometimes flop as a humorist, as a commentator he can also err. In a July interview with Marc Maron, former “Daily Show” writer Wyatt Cenac recalled arguing that Stewart had been racially insensitive in an imitation of African-American presidential candidate Herman Cain. Stewart was reportedly angry and defensive at the time.
“I would never say that we were perfect or without fault on any of that stuff,” “Daily Show” executive producer Steve Bodow told the New York Times in the wake of the Cenac interview. “And the incident with Wyatt was a real reminder of that.”
The other thing to be reminded of is that Stewart for 16 years has used a “fake news” format as a platform for a lot of discussions of real, serious news. And he has for the most part done it while being really funny.