Tom Junod’s profile of Jon Stewart in this month’s Esquire is an incredible piece of cultural criticism. First, there’s the indictment of Stewart’s comedy as vastly less revolutionary than it seems, a critique that essentially reaffirms that the country is an okay place and things that are not uniquely worse now than they were in the past and don’t require extraordinary remedies:
Kids who couldn’t sleep at night worrying that their president was a bad guy and that their country was doing bad things could now rest easy knowing that their president was just a dick, and that their country, while stupid, was still essentially innocent. It was like you could get upset about what was going on but still live your life, because there was Jon Stewart right before bedtime, showing you how to get upset entertainingly, how to give a shit without having to do anything about it. He denied having a message — admitting to a “point of view” but not an “agenda” — but of course he did, and it was this: that life goes on, and that politics may change but stupid always stays the same.
Then, there’s the way Stewart’s set himself up as someone who gets all the benefits of being powerful without any of the responsibility:
Invulnerable. Unassailable. Unimpeachable. The most sacred of liberalism’s sacred cows. The man whom a certain percentage of the country doesn’t just agree with but agrees on, more than they agree on anything, more than they agree on health care or President Obama. He protests, often, that he “doesn’t have a constituency”; what he does have, though, is a consensus, a presumption of unanimity anytime he walks into a room, unless that room is the greenroom at Fox News. Bill Maher is an atheist; Jon Stewart is a humanist, and by his humanism he’s become the strangest of things, the influential comedian, the admired comedian, the eminent comedian, the comedian who feels it necessary, always, to disavow his power. He’s been saying for ten years that he’s just a guy in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs; but he never gets spitballs thrown at him in return. [...]
Fox gives Stewart a reason to exist, and he’s been obsessed with Roger Ailes ever since he went to O’Reilly’s studio and was summoned into Ailes’s office. He stayed an hour and came out a freaked-out admirer, like the crazy newscaster in Network once Ned Beatty got through with him. It wasn’t just that Ailes asked him, right off the bat, “How are your kids?” and then berated him for hating conservatives; it wasn’t even that both men are intensely concerned about what people think of them and have no qualms about trying to influence how they’re portrayed. It’s that Ailes is all about power and so has accepted the obligation that Stewart has proudly refused. You want to know the difference between the Left and the Right in America? The Right has Roger Ailes, and the Left has Jon Stewart; the Right has an evil genius, while the Left contents itself with a genius of perceived non-evil.
I don’t tend to think that you should judge the success of a work of art by whether or not it inspires someone to action (though I always think it’s really interesting when such works do). But what about if the implicit premise of a work of political art is that we’re okay? That the best thing to do is not do anything? Or opt out? Or treat the system like it’s ridiculous and invest instead in a parody of it? I don’t think Jon Stewart is evil, or anything, and I think The Daily Show can be very, very funny. But Junod is right that there’s something odd about the limbo Stewart’s been able to maintain between art and public life, and something is distasteful about Stewart denying that he plays a larger role than simply as a comedian.