Laughter and Politics: Jon Stewart

Today on The Asterisk Effect, we are highlighting the career of comedian and former host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart. Stewart hosted the Comedy Central program for 16 years before stepping down in August 2015. His knowledge and comedic wit made him extremely popular during the Bush era and beyond. He was in many ways a liberal icon during years of a mostly conservative government in Washington.

Growing Up & Media Skepticism

Over his career, Stewart was known as one of the harshest mainstream media critics around, and he called out major media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News thousands of times over during his tenure at The Daily Show. A big reason for this may be attributed to the time period of when Stewart grew up. Born in 1962, Stewart grew up in the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War, which according to him, inspired “a great deal of skepticism towards official reports.” 

Stewart graduated from William & Mary in 1984 with a degree in psychology. He over to New York during the 1990’s stand-up comedy boom and before long was a regular on the comedy circuit across the city.

TV and Movies

 In 1993, he joined MTV with his own syndicated show, “The Jon Stewart Show.” But the show was discontinued in 1995 after ratings weren’t up to par. 

“That show died a very long, slow, painful public death.” Said the show’s co-creator Madeleine Smithberg

Stewart then went into acting, again with very little public notoriety or success.

The Daily Show

While Stewart was pursuing his acting career, Comedy Central was developing a new program called The Daily Show, which was supposed to be a 30-minute infotainment program about the news and current events. The show’s first host was Craig Kilborn. The first episode of The Daily Show premiered on July 22nd, 1996.

“We said, ‘we’re not going to do a show of jokes about the news. We’re going to do a news show that’s funny.'” Said Beth Littleford, a correspondent on the show from 1996-2000.

The show was a huge success and boosted Comedy Central’s ratings across the board. But after host Craig Kilborn was selected to host his own late night talk show, The Daily Show needed a new host. Jon Stewart seemed like an unlikely candidate, but he was chosen to take over nonetheless and in January 1999, the transition from Kilborn to Stewart officially began. 

“It feels weird to do a show that satirises the news,” Stewart recalls. “you’re almost cheering for chaos, which is a very odd position to be in.”

During its first year under Stewart, the show sees a slight increase in ratings and is wildly popular among the younger demographic of 18-34 year olds. But the show saw an unprecedented spike in popularity during the 2000 election campaign. The election played a significant role for both the show and the United States as a whole because for the first time in modern history, there was no clear winner the day after the election. In fact, the show became so influential under Stewart, that it won the prestigious Peabody Award for public service. 

Before long, The Daily Show became the source from which many people got their news, not a place where people tuned in to merely watch the news get criticized and made fun of. Rather, it became a part of the national dialogue and Stewart had the perfect mix of both humor and knowledge to pull it off.

Attacking the Media and Politicians

Over the years, Stewart developed a no holds barred approach to his comedy to the point where if you didn’t get your facts straight or were hypocritical in your coverage of the news, you could bet on Stewart calling you out later that night. 

“He has made newsmakers and politicians and people in the media conscious about what their gaffes are.” -Rachel Maddow

From that point on, Jon Stewart became a voice for left-leaning liberals who questioned just about anything and everything that was being reported on in the news, whether it was from Republicans or Democrats. It made people question, “why are we doing this?” 

International news has been really depressing over the last 15 years or so. What made Jon Stewart so special was that he could take that news and make people smile and laugh. It was a respectable way to get people engaged in what often times were genuinely depressing and complicated subjects like the war in Iraq, the many police shootings of unarmed black men, or climate change in the clip below. Stewart had the ability to take those subjects in the news and make people laugh while still holding the people who were responsible for these tragedies accountable with facts. 

Growing Even More Popular

It’s a testament to both Stewart and the writers at The Daily Show that the program became a haven for any celebrity guests with political ambitions and viewpoints. The Daily Show became a place where a politician came to pander to young voters. It was where a distinguished author could use Stewart’s platform to get more people interested in buying their book.

Stewart’s growing and loyal fan-base allowed him to make a charitable difference in the lives of others. Every year, Stewart hosts the “Night of Too Many Stars” which he invites his many celebrity friends on the show to her raise money for autism. So far, the Night of Too Many Stars has raised over $18 million for autism awareness and research.
On A More Serious Note…

Jon Stewart has had more of an impact on the way news is presented in today’s America than he would probably ever care to admit. What made Stewart great wasn’t just his popularity, but it was also his ability to shed light on important issues in a way that no one else had before. His brand of satire was invaluable because people have been shown to retain information better when they are entertained. That was what he did every night and every night was a new and different show. But to me, what made Jon Stewart different from his colleagues was his ability to appear vulnerable and be serious in the face of tragedy. A great example of this is his reaction to the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in 2015.

https://youtu.be/mjzrvRKv6Ks

Impact

Another apparent impact of Stewart’s time at The Daily Show is the amount of success his correspondents have had. Some notable names like Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Aziz Ansari, and Michael Che have all gone on to have successful careers in television and films after working for the show. Others like John Oliver,  Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Larry Wilmore have all gone on to host their own wildly popular political satire shows.

After 16 years behind the desk and 20 Emmy awards, Jon Stewart’s last show as the anchor of The Daily Show was on August 6th, 2015. He was replaced by Trevor Noah, a correspondent who still hosts the show today. Stewart left the show to spend more time with his wife and kids on their ranch in New Jersey. Every once in a while though, he will make a guest appearance to tackle an issue in the world, usually on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

But while Trevor Noah has done a great job filling in as host, there will never be another Jon Stewart. His legacy is forever enshrined in our hearts and minds. When it comes to shedding light on the news in a way that was informative, yet entertaining, Jon Stewart was simply the greatest to ever do it.

Andrew Kurzeja is a senior writer and contributor for the Asterisk Effect. Questions and comments can be submitted to the author at andrewkurzeja5@gmail.com

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