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Has Jon Stewart Lost It?

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | March 19, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | March 19, 2009 |

I was directed to a Tucker Carlson piece in The Daily Beast by the Galley Slaves — one of many, I might add, that have come out by the mostly conservative press since the CNBC flap with Jim Cramer — and I wondered if many folks, even on the liberal side, had come to the same conclusions?

Tucker explains why the Jim Cramer interview last week “didn’t make sense,” and then expounded on it, by suggesting that Stewart has simply become part of the liberal establishment, marshaling as evidence the fact that he lobbed softballs at Barack Obama and John Kerry in interviews during their respective Presidential campaigns. Then, Carlson — who is where he is (at the Daily Beast) today, in part, because of the Stewart’s takedown on “Crossfire” several years ago (the show was soon after cancelled, and Tucker Carlson has since fallen down the pundit ladder with a series of short-lived cable shows.) His most damning statement: That Stewart just isn’t funny anymore.

A serious man needs a serious mission, however, and this is suddenly a problem. With Bush gone and the Republican Party in chaos, most of Stewart’s targets have disappeared. Yet rather than pivot with the times and challenge those now in power, Stewart continues to attack the same old enemies, at this point mostly straw men and pipsqueaks. A couple of weeks ago, he spent an entire seven minutes mocking the crowd at a CPAC conference.
His studio audience loved it, though that isn’t saying much. Stewart’s audience would erupt if he read the phone book, or did his monologue in German, a response that over time is a threat to any man’s soul. During many segments, Stewart’s audience doesn’t laugh so much as cheer, a distinction that would bother most comedians. Stewart keeps them around anyway. Uncritical praise corrupts absolutely.
As Stewart becomes more self-righteous, he inevitably becomes less funny. Sanctimony is the death of humor, and also of innovation. Where a show like “South Park” challenges its audience’s every conceivable assumption, “The Daily Show” has become safer than” Jay Leno,” pandering night after night to the converted … But it’s too late. The great comedian is gone, maybe forever. Jon Stewart is stuck in lecture mode.

Harsh words, though the sting would hurt a little more if they hadn’t come from a bow-tied wiener who lost his cultural capitol at least five years ago. What Carlson also fails to point out is that Stewart has always been soft on politicians, conservative and liberal alike (Stewart, after all, almost single-handedly made McCain appealing to liberals until McCain’s 2008 campaign). He rarely goes after anyone during interviews; he’s passed up easy opportunities that even Letterman has taken to rip out Bill O’Reilly’s jugular. And why is he soft on Obama, while still attacking the diminishing conservative voice? Because Obama hasn’t given him reason to turn on him yet. Like the rest of the late night comedians — Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, and Kimmell — he’s still attacking Republicans because that’s where the humor lies.

Carlson also offers up this anecdote, about the aftermath of the “Crossfire” episode that essentially ruined Tucker’s career:

Unlike most guests after an uncomfortable show, Stewart didn’t flee once it was over, but lingered backstage to press his point. With the cameras off, he dropped the sarcasm and the nastiness, but not the intensity. I can still picture him standing outside the makeup room, gesticulating as the rest of us tried to figure out what he was talking about. It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. Finally, I had to leave to make a dinner. Stewart shook my hand with what seemed like friendly sincerity and continued to lecture our staff. An hour later, one of my producers called me, sounding desperate. Stewart was still there, and still talking. No one this earnest can remain an effective satirist, and at times Stewart seems like less a comedian than a courtier to the establishment.

I didn’t realize that earnestness — especially off-camera earnestness — affected one’s ability to satirize. To me, that right there sums up why I like Stewart so much: He’s not just rattling off jokes from a teleprompter. He actually gives a shit about what he’s covering — he takes it personally. And in his way, he’s trying to change it, even if it ultimately strips away his material.

But it still doesn’t answer the question: Is Stewart still funny? I can’t tell, because my laughter is so often drowned out by my cheering.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.