Once it was announced that Jon Stewart would retire from the Daly Show, you just knew it would set the chattering classes atwitter. The first wave of commentary would be fawning; we would hear about his comedic genius, how he changed the media landscape forever, and about how the fact that he launched so many other comedic careers is a testament to his enduring legacy…
And then, like clockwork, would come the contrarian takes about how biased and overrated he was.
So who’s right? Probably both.
It’s true that his brand of satire was fresher during the Bush era (just as Rush Limbaugh’s was fresher during the Clinton era), and that he had a habit of scoring political points when expedient, and then using his status as “Just a comedian” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. (Okay, it’s not like he patented the “Just an entertainer” line of defense.)
It’s also true that he doesn’t exactly leave behind a legacy as a reformer with results. As Will Rahn noted, for all the talk about how he was standing up to the bullshit cable news programming, it arguably got more vapid during his tenure at Comedy Central.
My favorite criticism of Stewart is that is shtick was formulaic, repetitive, and had grown tired. Last year, for example, the Free Beacon did a pretty good job of analyzing his routine:
Host Jon Stewart plays a smashcut of television news clips, to help him destroy, eviscerate,demolish, devastate, torch, obliterate and disembowel a generally conservative straw man opinion, movement or Fox News host.
After that comes the true punch line, where Stewart often simply gapes at the camera for humorous effect, to convey his shock or revulsion at whatever those clips displayed. All this is done to raucous applause and laughter from an adoring studio audience.
In case you doubt how predictable it was, they put together this handy video:
… Yes, but it was a winning formula. And honestly, couldn’t you say that about most iconic comedians?
Robin Williams became a parody of himself with his manic act. Bill Cosby had the faces and the cadence and the inflections and the pauses (see Eddie Murphy’s NSFW impersonation). Like Jon Stewart, Johnny Carson got a lot of mileage and laughs out of his ability to simply shoot a knowing wide-eyed glance at the cameras. Bob Hope leaned heavily on lame sexual innuendo. Bob Newhart got laughs by stammering … (I could go on.) It’s fair to poke holes in Stewart’s act, but it’s not as if every great comic didn’t have at least a few crutches. In the end, I don’t see him as some some great revolutionary figure, but I do think he was funny.
Was Jon Stewart a great comedian or a partisan hack? The answer, of course, is yes. But then again, I’m just a scribbler.