Illustration by Andre Carrilho
Lately in this life of our country, Jon Stewart is the only thing that’s kept me sane. I first caught up with him in 2004, not on his own program—Comedy Central’s Daily Show, which Stewart took over five years before—but on CNN. During the fall campaign between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry, I had developed an obsession with 24-hour news that I suspected was unhealthy, but not until I saw Stewart guest on Crossfire did I understand the extent of my self-abasement. Crossfire was one of CNN’s most enduring series. It had run for more than two decades, since the network’s earliest days, always pitting a “liberal” against a “conservative” over whatever was considered the issue of the moment; the two-person cast was made up of rotating ideologues, which is to say that even as the faces and personalities changed (in this case Democratic hack Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, a George Will wanna-be down to his bow tie), the views never did. Watching the exchange, I wasn’t sure whether Stewart knew before he went on that he was going to say what he said; the Crossfire hosts expected hilarity, or at least good manners. “Stop,” Stewart told them instead, first as a plea, then getting madder. “Stop hurting America.”
Stewart was talking about a political culture that insists every consideration divides into neat polarities, and it’s his indignation over this phenomenon rather than any ideological rage that gives him his moral authority as our leading satirist. I think it’s probably fair to suggest that, since 2004, the culture hasn’t become less polarized or more nuanced as it lays to waste the maxim of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a Democratic senator from the ’70s through the ’90s who occasionally infuriated liberal allies by thinking independently) that one is entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts. Now every so-called news network is an alternate universe unto itself. It would be disingenuous to pretend Stewart doesn’t have his politics, which are pretty easily identified as left of center; and if any comedian can only be as good as his audience allows him, Stewart’s—“bused…in from Cuba,” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly cracked a few months ago from the guest’s chair—is often to his own left, which means they don’t laugh as much at the Barack Obama jokes. Discussing Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s assertion that the charges of sexual harassment against him were driven by the “Democrat machine,” Stewart defined said machine as one that costs billions of dollars, runs on solar power, and “turns hope into disappointment.” The audience’s dismay was audible. “Fucking deal with it!” Stewart shouted at the crowd, only half kidding. A few minutes later, when they heartily cheered a joke at Republicans’ expense, he nodded at the predictability. “Yeah,” he said, “now you love me again.”
By his own accounting, over a life that’s included careers as a bartender, a puppeteer, a Woolworth’s clerk, an intermittently successful stand-up comic, and—when lightning finally struck—an MTV talk-show host, Stewart’s politics have, if anything, drifted somewhat rightward as he’s gotten older. From the standpoint of his comedy, this almost certainly is for the better. When he’s at his most keenly ideological, ridiculing personalities like Texas governor Rick Perry, he can come off as the snotty elitist his critics would have us believe he is; his enthusiasm for mimicry exceeds his talent for it, his funniest responses oftentimes the least verbal—the deadpan stare after running a clip so manifestly preposterous as to defy comment, or a cutaway to Stewart holding his head in his hands in mock despair. In his role as faux-anchor of a faux-news show, Stewart is at his best skewering not right-wingers per se but orthodoxy itself, right or left, and the hysterics of any stripe in an age when knowing stuff is regarded by parts of the body politic as antithetical to common sense. Stewart’s currency is iconoclasm, in contrast with Daily Show spin-off success Stephen Colbert, whose incarnation as a smug media narcissist à la Fox News’ Sean Hannity (in whom sanctimony and stupidity vie for supremacy) precludes evenhandedness. Originally aspiring to be an actor, Colbert almost has become too good as “Stephen Colbert,” and when the audience chants his name at the beginning of each show, it’s hard to be sure who likes it more, “Colbert” or Colbert. The most obvious difference between Colbert and Stewart is that whereas the guest spots on The Colbert Report always are about Colbert, Stewart makes his about the guest; and if I guffaw more at Colbert, that just proves how cheap my laughter can be. Colbert preaches to the choir, of which I know I’m a part more often than not. But when I contemplate watching either program with my conservative Republican mother (probably not that great an idea), I can see her dismissing Colbert as jester in the court of the liberal media, while Stewart I imagine making her wince when his aim is at its most unerring.
ot to put too fine a point on it as we head into an election year, but so far Stewart’s target is irresistibly the Repub-lican presidential candi-dates. Truly, I’m sorry. I was raised on Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, so trust that this is as snark challenged a conclusion as can be mustered by any observer trying desperately to be dispassionate, but it’s difficult to believe that even a reasonable Republican (which admittedly I haven’t been for some time, and maybe no one else has, either) would disagree. As Stewart rampages through the campaign bons mots provided by the political equivalent of the Flat Earth Society, his glee has been tempered only by the candidates’ serial implosions, the cast of characters coming and going, novas in a cosmos of laughter: the gunslinging Lone Star chief executive who’s openly pondered seceding from the Union, the Midwest congresswoman who claims Democratic presidents cause swine flu, the pizza magnate concerned about China’s emerging nuclear program 50 years after it emerged, and best of all, the rich loudmouth with very silly hair who has called the president an illegal alien. Compared with this embarrassment of comedic riches—“I love you,” Stewart whispered to footage of Cain trying to remember his policy on Libya in a newspaper interview so disastrous, it verged on performance art—Obama just isn’t as funny, no matter how much Stewart scrambles to even the scales. To Stewart, what’s most satisfying about the president’s prospective opponents isn’t their stupefying ideas or dadaist policy positions but rather that they’re the sort of marvelous frauds Preston Sturges would have loved—which is why he lays off Ron Paul, the congressman who goes so far right, he sometimes winds up left. Paul is a real crazy, not a fake one. He’s intellectually consistent and has the courage of his derangement, and Stewart respects that.
When Stewart told Crossfire seven years ago to stop hurting America, the altercation went viral. I never watched Crossfire again; three months later the show was canceled, and Tucker Carlson quit wearing bow ties. Since then, wishful thinking by some though it may be, The New York Times has wondered whether Stewart is the most influential man in America—an accolade not so unlike that of America’s “most trusted man” bestowed on Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor of the ’60s who finally broke the news to the country that we were losing the Vietnam War. If anyone would be unsettled that this torch has passed from a real anchor to a comic playing an anchor, it would be Stewart himself, amid all the nonstop speed-of-sound news that he despises for the way it discourages a moment’s reflection. He still detests CNN for the pretension of any network that would have an anchor named Wolf even more than he does Fox, where rival O’Reilly, for whom Stewart has developed a grudging esteem, forcefully rejected the nonsense perpetuated by those around him concerning the president’s birth certificate.
If Stewart isn’t the most influential man in America, someone might tell those who wander across his stage night after night, including not only Barack Obama and Bill Clinton but conservative heroes like John McCain and Donald Rumsfeld. On occasion Stewart gives evidence of letting his clout go to his head, such as a year or so ago when he called the visiting president “dude,” but then again he called Carlson a “dick,” so Mr. Obama should console himself that “dude” isn’t too bad. In general, however, Stewart strives to deflate himself in public, or takes his clout seriously in the best way. He knows his stuff, apparently reading more newspapers in a day than a former vice presidential nominee could name in half a minute, politely but pointedly pressing his argument with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice following her defense of the Iraq War. “I do feel like I have a better sense,” he concluded softly, patting her hand without a trace of irony but rather with something that sounded and looked like actual affection, “of why we did make that huge mistake.” She laughed.