Our Moment of Zen: Saying Goodbye to Jon Stewart

Few things can humble me more quickly than a brief trip to the Home Depot. During a recent project, I immediately became lost among the store’s countless plumbing supplies. When I sought the help of an employee—a former contractor—he looked at me with what appeared to be the disgust of an English professor being asked to spell ‘cat’ and grunted toward a shelf before shuffling off in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, a few moments later a young employee approached me and asked how he could help. He immediately pointed out the items I needed and described how they should be applied. It dawned on me then that I’d just witnessed a small act of translation right there in the plumbing aisle. By listening to my questions, someone had helped me understand—despite my ignorance and an overwhelming amount of options on the shelves—what I actually needed to complete the job.

Advertisement

My small moment of relief and gratitude was lost on the employee but not on me. In many ways my humbling foray into home improvement mirrors the innumerable acts of translation we try to make daily in the digital age. We are constantly overloaded with endless oceans of information and complexity but we lack the ability to stay afloat, much less fundamentally make sense of much of it. Richard Saul Wurman referred to it as “information anxiety,” which he described as “the black hole between data and knowledge” and “the widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand.” 

For millions of us over the past 16 years, Jon Stewart has been a bridge over that black hole in coping with the American political landscape. His departure from “The Daily Show” on August 6 leaves many of us with a different type of anxiety now: whom can we trust to give us the daily dose of sanity we require in our polarized nation?

Though no one could have seen it at the time, Stewart’s debut on “The Daily Show” in 1999 was well timed. Our body politic’s polarization was growing in the wake of the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the disputed presidential election in 2000. At the same time an explosion in electronic media occurred. Along with it came a bottomless need for content that was being filled by an ever-growing punditocracy who helped turn news media into the three-ring blood sport it is today.

Stewart stepped into that mix as a comedian who was not particularly known for political satire, much less topical humor. Prior to arriving at “The Daily Show,” he had spent most of the ’90s hosting a few short-lived talk shows and playing supporting roles in films like Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy” and guest spots on “The Nanny” and HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” It’s not as if Stewart came out of nowhere, but certainly no one could have predicted that he would develop into what he has become.

And what he’s become is one of the most incisive and intelligent commentators on politics and media in the United States. Those who simply try to dismiss Stewart as a liberal apologist would do well to read Jacob Gershman’s “Why Neoconservative Pundits Love Jon Stewart” in New York Magazine, in which conservatives confess that “The Daily Show” is one of the few places where the host is “fair” and “fundamentally wants to talk about the issues.”

The “fake news” is not a new phenomenon by any means. “The Onion” has been around since 1988, and “Saturday Night Live” has had their Weekend Update segment in one form or another for 40 years, to name just two examples. But what Stewart has accomplished is different. People look to “The Daily Show” not simply to laugh but to understand and gain some insight into the endless sound bites and spin that now constitute the highly mediated world of American politics. Under Stewart’s leadership, the show has been as era-defining as “All in the Family” was in the early 1970s.

The truth is that it wasn’t simply Stewart who created this phenomenon; his audience was a willing collaborator as well. The sort of media satire “The Daily Show” has produced over 16 years couldn’t have had the impact it has had without an audience that has been steeped in media/marketing/spin since birth and has become sophisticated enough to see the substance and critique behind the humor. This younger audience gets their information in countless ways—the web, television, social media, etc.; it is Stewart and his team at “The Daily Show” who offer context and candor.

And over those 16 years there has been abundant need not only for context and candor but for outrage, sadness and every emotion in between. Hanging chads, September 11, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Osama Bin Laden, the economic collapse, the election of our first African American president and the debate over health care…just a small sampling of the issues “The Daily Show” has taken on. In the process of entertaining and informing it’s also helped viewers—myself included—feel less alienated and alone in our complex world.

“'It can be said of three men that, in their time as communicators, this nation hung on their words, waited in eager anticipation of what they were going to observe and report and treat in their special way—Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Walter Cronkite.” When a UPI senior editor wrote this hyperbolic assessment of Cronkite’s retirement in 1981, television news consisted of three major broadcast networks, cable television was in its infancy, CNN was less than a year old and Rupert Murdoch’s major U.S. media outlet was the New York Post

To say that we live in a different media age would be an epic understatement. In evolutionary terms, news media over the past 35 years has evolved from harnessing fire to nuclear proliferation. The simpler world in which Cronkite plied his trade has fragmented beyond recognition. In the information age, Jon Stewart’s great contribution has been to hold up a fun house mirror to our shattered body politic and show us how those fragments might still fit together.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Kelly
2 years 3 months ago
In response to Bill McGarvey’s paean to Jon Stewart: the few times I watched Stewart I found his snarky demeanor and the insipid hyena-like laugh of his audience in response to his act to be disgusting and unwatchable. I also find it mind-boggling that McGarvey and apparently many young people regard Stewart’s show as a news source. I realize Stewart has focused much of his ire on Fox News which is certainly a juicy target for liberals who are inconsolable about the loss of their past monopoly on the news, but some liberals have wised up: http://www.realclearemail.com/sendpage/friend.php?id=http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2014/04/28/joe_klein_only_straight_newscast_at_6_pm_is_on_fox_news.html&js=on But for an especially insightful analysis see “Camille Paglia takes on Jon Stewart, Trump, Sanders: ‘Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true!’ “ http://www.salon.com/2015/07/29/camille_paglia_takes_on_jon_stewart_trump_sanders_liberals_think_of_themselves_as_very_open_minded_but_that%E2%80%99s_simply_not_true/ Excerpt: “I regard (critics who seem not to have respect for religions for faith) as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.” It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents– they’re still sneering at dad in some way. … “But this sneering thing! I despise snark. Snark is a disease that started with David Letterman and jumped to Jon Stewart and has proliferated since. I think it’s horrible for young people! … “I think Stewart’s show demonstrated the decline and vacuity of contemporary comedy. I cannot stand that smug, snarky, superior tone. I hated the fact that young people were getting their news through that filter of sophomoric snark. … “ Regarding Stewart’s propensity to sneer at religion, as painful as it might be for some America readers, go the Catholic League website - http://www.catholicleague.org/ - and simply do a search for Jon Stewart. Among the gems you will find are attacks on the Eucharist described in these links: http://www.catholicleague.org/stewart-gets-foul-again/ and http://www.catholicleague.org/jon-stewart-attacks-eucharist-2/ and also this bit of satire intended by Stewart to be “entertaining and inform(ative)” and to “help viewers” like Mr. McGarvey “feel less alienated and alone in our complex world”: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/8evbk2/the-battle-for-the-war-on-women (at4:50).
Ann Phillips
2 years 3 months ago
Michael Kelly, I agree. Thank you for your post.
G Miller
2 years 3 months ago
Stewart did something that clearly rubbed you the wrong way. I am saddened that you could not see beyond that irritant. While the subject was coated in humor, there was a serious information underneath that. It's great to find a combination of smart and funny. I never saw "The Daily Show" as a primary news source but I did enjoy his takes on the news. He was more credible as a broadcaster than all of the newsreaders in CNN, Fox, et cetera combined. I felt he was honest because he made no bones about his point of view. He was transparent. Mr. Stewart skewered both sides very well. His pieces on "Carlos Danger" were great. And perhaps you forgot that Anthony Weiner, aka Carlos Danger, is a personal friend of Mr. Stewart. Yet he pulled no punches there. You might have even said he was merciless. By his own admission Stewart politically skews left. So it's just a lot easier for him to lampoon the likes of Donald Trump and the rest of the American political right wing. Unlike Fox News which insists that it is "fair," Stewart never obscured the fact that he had a clear bias. That being said, more people who identify with the Right (42%) are okay watching Stewart than those who skew Left are watching Bill O'Reilly (27%) This stat was in the NYTImes this morning. Final note: for anyone to site the Catholic League as some sort of bastion of unbiased anything is hysterical. You should have been a writer on the Daily Show. Bill Donohue is just a nasty man that should be sitting in a folding chair next to Antonin Scalia screaming: "get off of my lawn!" at the kids as they walk home from school. Instead he is the media front for USCCB and nothing more. Have you ever noticed there is no "JOIN" button, just a "DONATE" button, on the League's website? Ever tried to go to a Catholic League meeting? Did you notice that there is no FAQ section that talks about joining the Catholic League? Ever tried to run for a post in a local chapter of the Catholic League? Which begs the question about exactly how big the Catholic League really is. I think the word League is misapplied in this case. And to the media's discredit, it will bring Mr. Donohue and Tony Perkins from the hate group, Family Research Council, and call them credible voices on certain topics which is a total joke. And then we wonder why Stewart has more credibility for many in our society than CNN, Fox News and the broadcast networks....
Michael Kelly
2 years 3 months ago
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that your criticism of the Catholic League is entirely valid. How is your criticism of the Catholic League germane? While I stated my general dislike of Stewart’s show, my comments about Stewart and religion focused on his disgusting “satire” directed at the Eucharist and other aspects of Catholicism that Catholics cherish. I did not “site” (sic) the Catholic League or Bill Donohue as an authority on Stewart or a “bastion of unbiased anything”. I simply cited the Catholic League website for its useful compilation of disgusting attacks on Catholicism by Stewart and in particular its description of two instances of mocking the Eucharist. YouTube videos of the Daily Show episodes containing the two instances of Stewart mocking the Eucharist are readily accessible to anyone who has the stomach to wade through the archives of Daily Show episodes on the Daily Show website http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos , as are the other similar instances such as the one I linked to directly. Suggestion: Forget about Bill Donohue’s politics and try to focus like a laser on the merits of Camille Paglia’s observation that “sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination (that) exposes a state of perpetual adolescence” as exemplified in my opinion by Stewart’s anti-Eucharist “satire” and explain how, in your words “while the subject was coated in humor, there was a serious information underneath that. It's great to find a combination of smart and funny.” Some readers of this blog may be interested; this is a Catholic blog after all.
ELEANOR LUNN
2 years 3 months ago
Really! Camille Paglia? The woman has rarely come across a public personality with which she agrees. Her claim to fame is that she disagrees with just about everyone. If you are going to quote someone at length, try to choose someone who is not so radical and negative. Thank you!
Bill McGarvey
2 years 3 months ago

Thanks for your comment, Michael, and for the citations you provided. By way of clarification, in praising Stewart for his contribution to the national dialogue, I'm not claiming to have loved or even agreed with everything he's done on his show. But if that's the bar, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone--myself included--worthy of praise. 

As for snark, I would agree that in some people's hands it can simply be a cheap form of comedic posturing but I would disagree with Camille Paglia's assessment that Jon Stewart is an example of snark. The Daily Show traffics in political and cultural satire and while there may not be a clear border between the two, for my money Bill Maher is a far better example of snarkiness than Stewart. Satirical comedy can be a blunt instrument sometimes but it's clear to me that--as the conservative pundits admitted--he's clearly interested in discussing the issues fairly.

Regarding your comment:

"I also find it mind-boggling that McGarvey and apparently many young people regard Stewart’s show as a news source."

As I tried to point out in the piece, the media age we live in is in complete overdrive. We are assaulted by messaging 24/7. We've also been trying to figure out how to live in a confusing post 9/11 world that at times has resembled an absurdist political comedy (eg: the war in Iraq over non existent WMDs, Hurricane Katrina, the Birther scandal etc). When our politics become a surrealist exercise, the Swiftian political satire of Stewart speaks volumes more than any conventional newscast can.

STEPHANIE SIPE
2 years 3 months ago
Thank you Bill McGarvey!! I have to wonder, how many Catholics (including Sam Sawyer S.J.) quoting Camille Paglia's "assessment" of Jon Stewart, have ever quoted her before; will they ever again? No Snark but a little Sarcasm.
Bernard Campbell
2 years 3 months ago
Very thoughtful article and commentary about an iconoclastic media person.
ELEANOR LUNN
2 years 3 months ago
I couldn't listen to Jon Stewart! It wasn't because I disagreed with him, it was because I couldn't listen to his screaming. I found it too disturbing. There is so much noise in NYC, I just didn't want to put up with it at home.
Christine Cheshire
2 years 3 months ago
Nice post, Billy. I have enjoyed Stewart for many years and his insight has made me able to laugh at the craziness around us. He will be missed, so now it is up to each of us to see the truth (or truthiness a la Colbert) in what we are bombarded with daily.
Michael Kelly
2 years 3 months ago
More perceptive commentary on Jon Stewart and his influence on young, generally ill-informed viewers: “Jon Stewart, Avatar of Progressive Culture” http://www.wsj.com/articles/jon-stewart-avatar-of-progressive-culture-1438903270 (Also accessible at https://www.google.com/search?q=Jon+Stewart%2C+Avatar+of+Progressive+Culture&oq=Jon+Stewart%2C+Avatar+of+Progressive+Culture&aqs=chrome..69i57.287j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8 ) “Farewell To Jon Stewart, The Left’s Donald Trump” http://thefederalist.com/2015/08/06/farewell-to-jon-stewart-the-lefts-donald-trump/ Also, Bill McGarvey, re: “I'm not claiming to have loved or even agreed with everything he's done on his show. But if that's the bar, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone--myself included--worthy of praise.” Leaving aside the legitimacy or lack thereof of my criticism of Stewart’s act and the juvenile, cackling on cue reaction of his audience, and considering solely outrages such as his mocking of the Eucharist, (see below), how about instead responding to such outrages with the above passive, non-judgmental comment above, you express the outrage that would no doubt follow from blatant racist, sexist, or anti-Muslim depictions by Stewart or anyone else? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/jdadf7/wrong-off (:00 to about 1:50) Hilarious and insightful; No?

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Images: CNS/Composite: America
On Nov. 11, the Catholic Church lost a moral titan in the long struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States.
Shannen Dee WilliamsNovember 22, 2017
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar military commander-in-chief, speaks during the Union Peace Conference Aug. 31 in Naypyitaw (CNS photo/Hein Htet, EPA).
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing wields great political power in the country.
Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in “Wonder” (CNS photo/Lionsgate). 
‘Wonder’ is a tween melodrama on a mission of mercy.
Simcha FisherNovember 22, 2017
The change was in “no way” a response to the C.C.H.D.’s persistent online critics, an archdiocesan official says.
Kevin ClarkeNovember 22, 2017