One of the memorable media events of the 2000s took place when Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on Crossfire in October 2004 and scolded Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for staging mock debates and phony polarities: “It’s hurting America,” he moaned, as the hosts fumbled for a response.
He gained a moral stature that day and it has prevailed ever since. Now that he is retiring, the testimonials are abundant. This week on a news show, Donna Brazile stated, “He made politics relevant,” while another said, “He changed everything for Millennials.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on his departure and gave ample space for his network to praise him to the stars. Comedy Central’s president stated: “Through his unique voice and vision, ‘The Daily Show’ has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans and an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come. He is a comic genius, generous with his time and talent.”
The Journal also noted that Crossfire was cancelled soon after Stewart’s appearance.
We should note another impact of Jon Stewart. More than anyone else in recent times, he made profanity cool and smart. He launched four-letters words after showing neatly arranged video clips and his youthful live audience howled in glee. He leaped from solemn exhortation to obscene epithet with ease, and the implication was that the latter was just as pertinent and critical and sane as the former. Youths took the lesson: the four-letter word could be an expression of discernment.
I won’t link to one particular segment when he took on Bernie Goldberg and Fox News, but it ends with five Gospel singers doing their thing while Stewart dances in front of them and chants a vile three-word imperative over and over. (It asks Goldberg and Fox News to commit an act upon themselves.)
This is the wit and brilliance that Stewart’s fan savored, a mix of cleverness and naughtiness. That he did it so well is no cause for praise.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.