Perhaps I’m revealing too much about my age, but I’ve been a fan of Jon Stewart’s since the mid-1990’s. In those days he hosted a variety talk show on MTV that was very much nonpolitical. After the Jon Stewart Show was cancelled, I remember seeing him once or twice in romantic comedies, but I believed his career had nosedived into the morass of washed-up MTV VeeJay’s like Kennedy or Matt Pinfield.
I watched Stewart faithfully from his first season of the Daily Show. I only occasionally watched other late night shows like David Letterman or Conan O’Brien (I can’t stand Jay Leno); I renewed my cable so I could see The Daily Show. Later, The Colbert Report introduced a fascinating twist on Stewart’s formula. Stephen Colbert played the role of a blustering conservative pundit whose commentary challenged the viewer to make assumptions about his sincerity in order to understand his underlying meaning.
I think of The Daily Show as a platform for those of us who have grown up skeptical of government and who feel patronized by the biased multitudes of news media. My bond with the show was forged in the fiery months following Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. With a government run amok in a world gone over to the crazy place, Jon Stewart was an anchor, a reminder that I wasn’t alone in my bewilderment.
Stewart’s Rally To Restore Sanity will likely register less with Fox’s viewers than Glenn Beck’s Rally To Restore Honor did with Stewart’s. Although Stewart denies his rally is a direct response to Beck’s, he does have a knack for locating the limelight and placing himself in it. Co-conspirator Colbert is equally shameless, recently testifying—in character—before a U.S. House Immigration subcommittee.
It’s tough to predict what effects the rally might have on a disenfranchised electorate just days prior to an important midterm election. I imagine it will be something like The Daily Show on location. Like I said, I’m a fan. I’ll be watching. So will many others like me, but I doubt Stewart will convert many people who aren’t already part of the herd. After the election, I’m sure conclusions will be drawn about the impact of the rally, but by then such speculation will be meaningless dramatization!
Stewart’s position is always normative, that is, he anchors his comedy on what he and his writers believe ought to be. His audience shares (and is shaped by) these normative views, which is what makes the juxtaposition of actual reality so funny. Stewart’s real weakness has always been his inability to provide a path to the ideal he creates through his humor. The Daily Show always seems to know what’s wrong with the way business is done but doesn’t offer any practical solutions.
Stewart is uniquely positioned, as a non-journalist and political outsider, to expose leaders and news celebrities alike as liars and fools. This place on the “periphery” allows him freedoms no news organization would dream of… indeed the news often provides punchlines for his show. Belonging loosely to what is referred to as the “4th Estate,” Stewart and Colbert serve as watchdogs for government activities. They also keep vigil over major media outlets, becoming a kind of 5th Estate. On a Daily basis, Stewart deconstructs the absurdities presented as news in America. For example, Al Sharpton’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was flayed by news coverage as being incomprehensible, when in fact the largely improvised speech was simply not standard fare for such a prescripted event. Stewart is able to point out the inflated drama… under protection of laughter.