james debate
james debate

Monday 10 August 2015

On August 6th, 2015, we witnessed the figurative end of an era as Jon Stewart retired from the Daily Show after sixteen years. He retires as one of the world's most respected names in nightly news, and the pioneer of a new genre of satirical journalism. His legacy is assured, but in his wake we are losing one of television's last great voices of integrity, one of the few remnants of sanity left in the political discourse.

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Looking back at the Daily Show's innocuous beginning as a piece of light entertainment on a mediocre basic-cable comedy station, it seems hard to believe what it has become. Jon Stewart's blend of satire and poignant journalism has far exceeded Comedy Central's meager audience, to the point where Time Magazine has twice named him America's most trusted newsman. But what exactly was so special about Jon Stewart?

Of course, Stewart's contribution to comedy itself can't be overstated. The Daily Show has ultimately sparked a whole new genre in news satire, spawning a series of copycats in the process. Nowadays every network has its own comedy news show, and for many years Comedy Central was running two back to back.

Indeed the Daily Show has turned into one of the industry's greatest producers of comedy talent, serving as the debut theatre for some of today's biggest names in comedy, from Steve Carrell and Josh Gad, to Ed Helms and Lewis Black. Rob Corddry, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Schaal, Olivia Munn, John Hodgman, the list simply keeps going, full of people who have gone on to have renowned careers in acting and comedy. Then there's John Oliver, who's become a superstar in his own right on HBO, and Stephen Colbert, the man selected to replace legendary talkshow host David Letterman. Few people have ever had the eye for talent that Jon Stewart has.

Stewart and his astounding supporting cast have undoubtedly produced some of television's funniest moments of the past two decades, but it's the insightful commentary and ability to use humour as a spotlight for important issues that made the show truly essential. Nothing on the show was made up, everything came from truth, and the comedy merely served to highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of the real events around us.

One of the earliest memories The Ephemeric has of watching the Daily Show is with Stewart's "Bush vs Bush" segments, where he would play a clip of the then President saying something, and contrast it to an earlier statement, which would of course be completely contradictory. Then you would switch on CNN and see Wolf Blitzer making some lazy "well that was a pretty convincing speech from the President" comment, with seemingly no regard paid to what should be a fundamental part of journalism; was it right? Was it accurate?

That Jon Stewart's "comedy" show was the only news show in America that deemed it relevant to refer to the facts and call the President a liar when deserved revealed a sad truth about news media to the American people. The liberal and conservative propagandists on the MSNBC and FOX "news" networks may be happy to embrace that the "truth" on Friday may not be the same as the truth on Monday and present obfuscating jargon as "news" in the hopes that nobody notices, but Jon Stewart time and time again would bring them to task, relentlessly and with intellectual honesty. It's this which was his greatest contribution.

So as much as for the jokes, Jon Stewart will be remembered as the man whose common sense deconstruction shut down CNN's Crossfire overnight, the man who singlehandedly pushed the issue of aid for 9/11 emergency workers when partisanship brought Washington to a standstill, the man whose record-setting political rally attracted 250,000 people in a clarion call for sanity. Jon Stewart wasn't just a funnyman, he took on big issues, and in real depth. Perhaps it should say more about the abject, agenda-driven state of today's news coverage that a basic cable comedian could be considered a more reliable source and a more poignant commentator. Ultimately this burden of responsibility is what has worn Stewart down over the years.

It has been clear ever since the infamous Crossfire incident just how big a threat Jon Stewart is to the industry of political theatre. Pundits on both the left and right have stepped up their attacks on Stewart, none more laughably than FOX News, whose standing policy for deflecting criticism of its own horrendous track record for fact-checking and even-handedness seems to be to simply dismiss its critics as biased. That's not even the pot calling the kettle black, that's the pot calling snow black.

Yet even though any sensible person who watches more than just redacted FOX News clips would know to dismiss such plainly self-serving allegations as a mockery, there always remain that section of the populace who will blindly accept as they are told. This is the undeniable and sad conclusion of the work that Jon Stewart has been doing; the reason this hypocrisy and absurdity exists at all is because there is the market for it.

The partisan political theatre is so deeply ingrained into the national discussion that many people, tragically those who are most engaged in politics, simply don't care what is right, what is accurate. It's sport, self-affirming nonsense for people who somehow manage to detach the political process from the real-life consequences it has for the most vulnerable among us. We have disengaged from critical thinking in favour of shortsighted self-gratification. Jon Stewart's entire message is falling on deaf ears.

There's only so many times one can stomach MSNBC's insipid stories and idiotic framing of the news, or FOX and its overt dishonesty and willful perpetuity of ignorance. There's only so many times one can listen to every cable news network's blatant propagandizing and lowest common denominator condescension. Quite frankly there's only so many times one can watch veterans and the poor continually pay the economic and social consequences for policy decisions that have little or nothing to do with the substance of their needs. All the while getting a free-pass from the news media which is more concerned with harnessing the fabricated drama for ratings than presenting the relevant information to the public.

It's tiring enough for a regular person to see all the nonsense that goes on out there, one can only imagine how draining it must be for one's entire career to be focused on obsessively watching and listening to every drop of the crazy. The absurdity and innate silliness of it all isn't changing any time soon, but for Jon Stewart it's just not funny any more.

So where will Jon Stewart go from here? Despite the fact that fans have long called for an entry into politics, he has made it pretty clear that he has no interest in becoming part of the theatre himself. Nor is it obvious how someone who has committed so much of his career to fighting the concept of partisanship would fit into either political party. But that is not to say that Stewart will disappear from the scene completely.

Jon Stewart liked to say (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde) that his show was simply a "conversation" with the public. The conversation will continue, possibly in the form of more film making, following on from the critical success of his debut, Rosewater. As Jon Stewart departs his show he leaves a huge gap of much needed counterpoint to the deteriorating function of our society, but it's clear that wherever he goes next he still has plenty to say.

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