If I told you this post is going to be about Jon Stewart, would you expect it to be serious or comedic in tone? Tom Junod’s Big Esquire Profile of the man takes the former tone and suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong: profile writing is hard. You have to justify the time and money it takes to write the piece as well as the pages of magazine space they require. But any 7,000+ word story called “Jon Stewart and the Burden of History,” is going to suffer from an excess of self-importance (see: image above).
Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in January of 1999. Three months later, he was cowering from a rampaging Vanilla Ice on MTV’s 25 Lame. These days, Jon Stewart no longer is willing to appear on a program that counted down the 25 worst music videos of the past 25 years. This could be for a few reasons. Perhaps he has no time for the silliness of MTV countdowns and finds himself more at home sparring with cable news talking heads in a Serious Manner. Or maybe he’s too old and famous. It could be that he’s simply too busy as the host of the Daily Show, which just picked up a few more Emmy’s, and shows no signs of stopping. Either way, his career has gotten to the point where he rarely involves himself in comedy outside of the confines of his own program, which it should be noted, is a comedy show.
So, how do we explain writing like this, from the profile: “It’s just that when you’re talking about Jon Stewart, you’re never just talking about Jon Stewart. You’re invoking the Jon Stewart narrative — the collective fantasy about Jon Stewart — and it leads to all sorts of inappropriate historical comparisons.”
Why not just talk about Jon Stewart? Why do we have to talk about a collective fantasy? He is an immensely talented comedian who jokes about politics, using the media as targets because at this current moment, they present the best comedic targets. Full stop.
Things have become harder for Stewart since Obama took office. True! But that’s in large part because George Bush is fucking hilarious and Barack Obama is not. Bush called himself the Decider. He squinted. He was prone to misspeaking. He had a hilarious overconfidence in himself. Beyond that, he had a really funny frat boy way to him that made him a very easy target. Bill Clinton had plenty of foibles as well–mostly in his personal life, which made it easy for even his political allies to entertain jokes about him.
Barack Obama does not, yet, present an easy target. He is serious, wants to be taken seriously, and has yet to give us a reason not to treat him as such. He has his foibles, but honestly, what’s the most embarrassing failure or scandal of the Obama era? The biggest ones are policy-based and simply too nuanced to throw a proper one-liner at. Then there’s that thing where making fun of a black guy makes a liberal audience uncomfortable.
Of course, Stewart does have a political agenda. He admits as much, and nobody can follow politics as closely as he does and not want something or other to change. And of course these political goals–perhaps with more frequency as time goes by–seeps into his show. But Jon Stewart started as a comedian and continues to tell jokes on a half-hour talk show. Let’s just calm down about how important he is–he is not “the one indispensable figure of the cultural and political Left,” or “a genius of perceived non-evil.”
He’s just a comedian telling jokes on a talk show that airs after reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Tosh.0–to paraphrase his old line in making this argument about how his show is on after the puppets making crank phone calls. When he destroys someone in a debate, it works so powerfully because he’s a comedian, not in spite of it–he is outside of his realm when he takes on Chris Wallace. The whole point of Jon Stewart’s political persona, so far as there is one, is that losing a debate to a comedian should be fucking embarrassing for professional news-makers. When he stops being funny, he stops being relevant.