Goodbye Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart Daily Show

It’s easy to forget the bizarre political landscape in the early post-9/11 period. Islamist terrorists were the new kids on the block and they looked like very bad boys indeed. Our bulwark against the onslaught was our Prime Minister (a lab creation of orange fiberglass and distilled smarm), playing Jeeves the butler to a whooping hill billy with a potato for a head and his butter fingers all over a dangerously complicated military theatre.

When maximum absurdity meets unprecedented tragedy the result is a satirical dream. Jon Stewart was the satirist. On The Daily Show, Stewart wedded intelligent, cogent and sensitive political analysis with unparalleled wit. He gave voice to the insanity of the age, and he made it hilarious. In doing so, he made it bearable and he gave people hope. He was so intelligent, so funny, and so uncannily right that it seemed impossible that a world where Jon Stewart existed was a world where the idiots could win.

But of course, the idiots did win, they won big and they’ve only got worse. Cable news was Stewart’s primary target, with particular opprobrium singled out for Fox. In 2015, Fox News has not adapted to the Stewart onslaught and nor has its beloved Republican Party. No matter how many blows he landed, time and time again, over a period of 16 years no less, it’s more of a clown show now than it ever was. The only difference in the American cable news scene now, is that MBNBC have created for liberals their own echo-chamber ringing with similarly pompous, partisan yelps.

Through all that, Stewart remained the solitary voice of sanity in the political wilderness. But he too was only preaching to the already converted. His audience craved his ironic mockery, but irony can leave a bitter taste after a while. That’s where the seeds of destruction for Jon Stewart’s stint on the Daily Show lay. In his essay; “E Unibus Pluram; Television and U.S. Fiction” David Foster Wallace summarised this malaise perfectly; “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage. This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. But irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”

The strain of the constant negative power of irony has been showing in Stewart. More and more in recent years, he resisted the temptation to reach for the joke. There isn’t a great that’s amusing about a society that engenders the Charleston massacre and if it’s there at all, Stewart was too tired to look for it. Sooner or later, laughter becomes an insufficient anaesthetic against the perpetuity of human suffering. After sixteen years, it’s no surprise that Stewart hit that breaking point. He was clearly too sensitive not to. He will be greatly missed but it’s probably good that he’s gone.