08/07/2015

The gospel according to Jon

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Jon Stewart’s 16-year run as host of The Daily Show comes to an end today. That’s 16 years, 2,677 episodes, two Peabody Awards, and 19 Emmys, including a 10-year winning streak that was broken only by his protégé Stephen Colbert. The show’s guest last July 21 was no less than Barack Obama (his seventh appearance), and after Stewart thanked him for being there, Obama replied, “It’s always a pleasure. You’ve been a great gift to our country.”

That the president of the United States would say this to a comedian who hosts a satirical news program on a basic cable network — well, that says everything. Stewart, in his typical self-deprecating manner, often describes his job as “sitting in the back and throwing spitballs.” But over the years, this class clown has become America’s voice of reason, and it’s difficult (and depressing) to imagine late-night television without him.

I started watching The Daily Show in 2008, just because I thought it was hilarious and all I wanted was a good laugh at the end of a long day. This was during Obama’s first presidential campaign, and as faithfulDaily Show viewers know, the program is always at its absolute best during election season. So many people to make fun of, so little time! This was the same period when Sarah Palin was unleashed upon the world, so it was all just a comedic goldmine.

But the comedy was surprisingly intelligent as well, and the more Daily Show episodes I watched, the more I wished we could have a local version of it.

Think of all the ridiculous and idiotic issues that are in the news right now: Canada dumping garbage in the Philippines! China reclaiming land in the West Philippine Sea! This will-they-or-won’t-they electoral song and dance! Then imagine that from Monday to Thursday, for 21 minutes each night, someone takes the issues of the day and runs them through a witty, comical, critical filter for you.

Sure, the issues are still ridiculous and idiotic. The electoral song and dance may still go on for months. But just being able to laugh about these things —and become informed at the same time — don’t you feel better already?

For America, that guy was Jon Stewart. Watching The Daily Show, you get the sense that if we can find something to laugh about, despite all the crappy things happening in this world, then maybe we’ll be okay. His satirical distillation of the news helped us make sense of the madness, night after night.

But for all the laughs he delivered, I’ve always believed that Stewart was at his best when he wasn’t cracking jokes. Though I love him for his sense of humor, it was his humanity that won me over completely. The emotional speech he gave at the start of his first episode after 9/11, raw and unscripted, is one of his finest moments. “I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair,” he said, on the brink of tears and trying desperately to compose himself. “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. And now it’s gone. They attacked it, this symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

Another one of my all-time favorite Daily Show episodes is from December 2010, an entire show devoted to a proposed bill that would give $7 billion in health care benefits to the first responders of 9/11. As a result of exposure to toxic dust from the fallen buildings, these firefighters and policemen who spent months at Ground Zero were now suffering from potentially fatal respiratory diseases, some even diagnosed with cancer. Republicans had kept the bill from moving forward and there was barely any media coverage — until Stewart brought in four first responders for a lengthy interview. The bill was eventually passed, with Stewart credited for bringing attention to the issue when major American news outlets had failed to report on it at all.

The idea that a comedian would have this much influence in legislation seems absurd, but in Jon Stewart’s case, it’s not unexpected. And that’s what makes him so unique and legendary. Sure, he sits in the back and throws spitballs, lampooning politicians and criticizing the media. He says over and over that he is a comedian first, and that the main objective of The Daily Show is not to educate but to entertain. But because his comedy is a razor-sharp critique disguised in buffoonery, he is admired and respected, even by some of the very politicians he pokes fun at. He may reject being called a journalist or a newsman, but Stewart was never just a comedian.

The show’s subjects may be mostly American, but the themes and concepts are universal, and they ring true with viewers worldwide.

The show has spurred the creation of similar television programs all over the world, the most famous of which is Bassem Youssef’s Al-Bernameg in Egypt. (Youssef and Stewart have guested on each other’s shows and even become good friends, but sadly, Al-Bernameg was canceled after a three-year run due to pressure from the Egyptian government.) It’s an underground hit in China, too.

Last February, the New York Times interviewed a female pharmacist in Beijing who spends two to three hours a day subtitling The Daily Show before uploading bootleg copies for her social media followers. She wasn’t interested in American politics, she said. “We’re interested in the style of the show, and the idea that you can use jokes to tell the truth.” The Daily Show, she said, taught her that patriotism and criticism are compatible.

There is truth in comedy, and comedy in truth. I’ll always be grateful to Jon Stewart for telling it like it is and making us laugh along the way.

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