It’s time to face facts: Jon Stewart will probably never run for public office. As he often points out, his job is to tell jokes, often silly ones, on a network that also features a show with talking poop. But the very fact that he needs to remind us of this shows the significance of his extraordinary career in fake news. Yes, Jon Stewart is a comedian. But he has forever changed the very nature of comedy: what we think it is, and particularly what we think it can do.
He took a flagging satire of news shows on an obscure network and transformed it into one of our primary platforms for speaking truth to power.
Born Jon Leibowitz in 1962, Mr. Stewart became one of the fresh faces on the stand-up circuit in the ’90s. His stint on The Larry Sanders Show and a few brief but memorable turns in television and film introduced Mr. Stewart to comedy audiences, but he really made his mark after taking over the faltering Daily Show from Craig Kilborn. Mr. Stewart was instrumental in changing the format and focus of the show, encouraging his correspondents (including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Ed Helms) to take a political stance and let their opinions inspire their comedy. In so doing, Mr. Stewart and his multiple-Emmy-winning staff not only created the most biting satire of American politics in television history, they invented a new way of informing the public about the issues. Studies show that not only do many young Americans get much of their news from The Daily Show, but that the show’s content is as substantive as that of “serious” news programs.
Mr. Stewart has increasingly been able to use this mass-audience platform to extend his influence far beyond entertainment. His incisive, often heartfelt commentary on the state of the U.S. political system, high-profile interviews with leading political figures, and biting critique of the relationship between politics and traditional news media—and let us not forget his searing take-down of Crossfire’s Tucker Carlson—have made him a liberal icon and the subversive hero of nontraditional journalism. He may never be our commander-in-chief, but by using his lethal combination of common sense and biting wit, Jon Stewart has carved out a political role for himself: he’s our dissenter-in-chief.