Comedy and politics have always had an electric relationship. In the middle ages you could be killed for making fun of a king, but even in a place as free as the United States of America, joking about the leaders of our nation has always been a dangerous route for comedians to take. Even as we have ample reason to criticize people like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, you risk losing your liberal fans or your conservative fans depending on who you make fun of.
In the days of Vaudeville and The Ed Sullivan Show, every comedian felt like they belonged on the same stage to a certain extent. But with the counterculture movement of the sixties came a dividing line in what was deemed acceptable humor in show business, and people like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce felt that it would be ridiculous not to talk about “real” things. At a point, it was no longer a secret that the government was full of corrupt politicians, and the truth was that many comedians would not be remembered as well today if they did not point this out.
Including Jon Stewart, who is probably the most popular and successful political comedian on Earth. To this day, I think of him as the face of The Daily Show, a talk show that I rank among the best ever made thanks in large part to Stewart himself. Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live lampooned the news and made fun of politicians, but The Daily Show did it in a way that put all previous shows to shame. It was like watching Bugs Bunny report the news, and his smart satire won him much-deserved acclaim, even from legitimate journalists and news organizations.
Jon Stewart was born in New York, New York in 1962 and grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he attended Lawrence High School. Even back then he was a bit of a leftist, and his skepticism towards authority may have been informed by the fact that he grew up in the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
He graduated from the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 1984 and tried many different things to find out where he belonged, including playing soccer which he was not bad at, but after finding work in a variety of jobs at City Gardens in Trenton, his mind had opened up. The creative environment of the city had inspired many of its residents, including Jon, to long for greater things.
Stewart returned to NYC in 1986 to try his hand at stand-up comedy (he had a reputation for being funny in school) and he was so good that he eventually became a regular at the Comedy Cellar.
This led to writing jobs on television and eventually a gig co-hosting Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater in 1990 with comedian Patty Rosborough, not to mention MTV’s You Wrote it, You Watch It, in which viewers could send in their own stories to be acted out on the show by comedy troupe The State (a group that included celebrities like Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and Thomas Lennon).
Stewart’s career really started gaining traction after his 1993 appearance on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. In fact, David Letterman was a huge fan of Stewart’s.
Jon Stewart was regularly brought up in discussions about who would replace David Letterman as the host of Late Night after Letterman moved to CBS to host The Late Show, before Conan O’Brien got the job.
Stewart, however, did get a talk show in 1993. The Jon Stewart Show premiered on MTV as the network’s very first talk show and it was an instant success, second only to Beavis and Butt-Head in popularity among MTV’s programming. The problem was that it was moved to syndication to replace The Arsenio Hall Show and lost its audience, leading to a cancellation in 1995 (sometimes TV networks don’t know when to stop meddling).
Throughout the nineties, while guest starring in popular comedies like The Larry Sanders Show, Dr. Katz and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Stewart had obtained a lot of non-permanent hosting gigs such as The Late Late Show, George Carlin’s 40 Years of Comedy and Elmopalooza which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Sesame Street, and even tried to sell scripted comedies. By the end of the nineties, The Daily Show would come along.
The Daily Show is a late night talk show and news satire that premiered on Comedy Central in 1996 with host Craig Kilborn.
The program features a head anchor joking about real news stories often pointing out the absurdity in those stories, interviews with politicians and celebrities, correspondents and on-the-field reporting.
It was co-created by Lizz Winstead, who was previously the producer of The Jon Stewart Show and The Man Show (starring Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla), and Madeleine Smithberg, who was previously a talent coordinator for Late Night with David Letterman, initially as a replacement for Bill Maher’s talk show Politically Incorrect after it moved to ABC.
Under Craig Kilborn’s tenure, the show was less politically focused and according to Stephen Colbert (who was on the show before Jon Stewart) had more of a local news vibe. Many felt that the show lacked a clear vision, including the show’s creator Lizz Winstead who didn’t get along with Kilborn, leading to both of them leaving the show (Winstead quit and Kilborn was fired for disrespecting Winstead, although he later fell back on his feet when he took over CBS’s The Late Late Show from Tom Snyder).
In 1999, Jon Stewart got the job as host of The Daily Show and despite a rough period of transition and finding his place on the show while retaining many of Craig Kilborn’s writers and correspondents, Stewart had made the show into one of the best comedies in TV history.
The decision by Jon Stewart to make the show focus on politics was a great one. Many people think the show’s great turning point into brilliant satire came after the U.S. presidential election of 2000 and the September 11th terrorist attacks, two events the show was not afraid to tackle.
Under Stewart’s tenure, which lasted from 1999 to 2015, the program had received critical acclaim, was very popular with young people and had won multiple Primetime Emmys and more than one Peabody Award.
The show has also been a launchpad for the careers of many popular comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Wyatt Cenac, Hasan Minhaj, Jessica Williams, Michael Che and Michelle Wolf.
During Jon Stewart’s run, he had gained popularity for being unapologetic in his liberalism and his dogged anti-conservatism. While many people criticized the show for its liberal agenda, Stewart and his writers have maintained that the show is a comedy first, and it is simply not as funny to make fun of Democrats. Not to say that Jon Stewart is not a Democrat. He has made this point clear.
One of the things that helped turn Jon Stewart into a superstar was his interviews. While he has confronted politicians like John McCain and Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, his most famous interview may have been as a guest on Tucker Carlson’s CNN series Crossfire, in which he ended up calling Carlson a partisan hack who is hurting America. When Carlson fired back by saying he lobbed softball questions at Democrats like John Kerry on The Daily Show, Stewart replied that CNN should not be looking to Comedy Central for cues on integrity. The interview actually led to Crossfire being cancelled by CNN when the head of the network agreed with Jon Stewart in the exchange. Needless to say, this interview went viral, and it further cemented Stewart as a figure young people looked up to as someone who points out bullshit. Stewart would also openly criticize news organizations like CNBC and especially Fox News which he said promoted a conservative agenda and devalued intelligence, often targeting the network for its poor news coverage.
Stewart didn’t just use The Daily Show to stick it to conservatives, however. He also used the show to argue for 9/11 first responders who got sick due to the smoke from the wreckage of the twin towers. Three days after he devoted a whole half-hour to the subject, a relief fund bill for first responders was passed by Congress. In February 2019 and June 2019, Jon Stewart continued to argue in favor of responders and lobbied for permanent funding for victims compensation, which is set to expire in 2020.
Jon Stewart retired from The Daily Show in 2015 and South African comedian Trevor Noah has taken the mantle, but I rarely watch it anymore. Jon Stewart was the heart and soul of the show and I can’t help but feel like something is missing when I watch it today. Although Jon Stewart sometimes makes cameos on other talk shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His appearances have now become so rare that any time he shows up, it is a big deal.
I am a liberal, and it was the left-leaning Daily Show that first made me pay attention to Jon Stewart, but I have watched him on that show for so long, I have looked beyond the politics and to the person. Whatever he decides to do with his career next, I am looking forward to it.