In 2015, as Jon Stewart signed off “The Daily Show” for the last time, he refused to say goodbye. “An artist I really admire once said that he thinks of his career as a long conversation with the audience, a dialogue,” the comedian told viewers. The conversation he started 16 years earlier wasn’t ending, Stewart said, it had merely come to a “pause.”
Stewart has intermittently pressed play in the years since to bring attention to the ongoing health problems plaguing survivors of the 9/11 attacks — particularly emergency workers who were sickened in the aftermath — and the federal funding needed to support them.
The issue, which he first raised in an episode of the groundbreaking Comedy Central show, brought Stewart before a House Judiciary subcommittee last week. He held back tears as he urged lawmakers to ensure continued backing of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which helps offset health-care expenses for thousands of ill first responders, some of whom are dying from cancer, respiratory illnesses and other ailments. The fund is set to run out at the end of next year, and officials have already said future payouts will be cut — some as much as 70 percent — amid a surge in claims.
“The Daily Show” made Stewart a household name, trusted implicitly by the left and respected, if grudgingly, by many on the right. Twenty years after he began hosting the satirical show that changed how we consume news, Stewart remains a uniquely influential figure in politics. The comedian doesn’t just fight the system — he understands how it works.
In his testimony, Stewart decried lawmakers for their “callous indifference.” On Fox News Sunday, he turned his focus to one lawmaker in particular: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who, Stewart said, “has always held out until the very last minute, and only then, under intense lobbying and public shaming, has he even deigned to move on it.”
McConnell issued a terse response Monday on “Fox & Friends,” pledging that Congress would “take care of” the victim’s fund. “We’ve never failed to address this issue and we will address it again,” the long-serving Kentucky senator said, adding that he didn’t know why Stewart was “all bent out of shape.” (The comedian later broke down his frustrations in a surprise appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”)
Stewart knows, as McConnell noted on “Fox and Friends,” that “many things in Congress happen at the last minute.” In December 2010, with the 111th Congress nearing the end of a lame-duck session, Stewart devoted an episode of his show to the political battle around the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Earlier that month, Senate Republicans had blocked the long-stalled bill, intended to provide health benefits for federal responders and reauthorize the victim’s fund. But on Dec. 22, less than a week after “The Daily Show” episode, which also featured a panel of 9/11 first responders, Congress passed the Zadroga Act. Many, including former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, credited the comedian with galvanizing lawmakers.
Stewart also knows that congressional inaction can result in funding that is lapsed or expired — as the Zadroga Act had in 2015, when Stewart again appealed to lawmakers. Four months after leaving “The Daily Show,” Stewart returned to his former platform to urge Congress to renew the act. He was joined by Kenny Specht, a New York City fire department veteran, who had appeared on the 2010 “Daily Show” episode. Specht shared grim news: Two of his fellow panelists were too ill to return; the other had died of cancer. Later that month, Congress voted to extend the Zadroga Act through 2090.
But with the future of the victim’s fund unclear, Stewart is again pressing lawmakers to take action. And the public pressure continues to yield results: A day after Stewart’s testimony last week, which was preceded by statements from first responders, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on a bill that would replenish the fund. It is expected to pass in a full House vote but still faces a battle in the Senate.
To that end, Stewart’s decision to appear on Fox News — on “Fox News Sunday” and in an interview last week with Shepard Smith — is a shrewd move. Stewart is speaking directly to his intended audience — McConnell and other Republican senators — while appealing to their constituents, and his message is clear: Support for victims of an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, and is linked to the deaths of thousands more, shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“We’ve spent a year compiling bipartisan co-sponsors and advocates for this bill, all in the hopes that when it finally gets to the great Mitch McConnell’s desk, you won’t jack us around like you’ve done in the past,” Stewart said on “The Late Show” Monday night. It was only there that Stewart, a producer on the late-night comedy, unfurled the biting humor that made his “Daily Show” tenure so successful.
“Listen, Senator, I know your species isn’t known for moving quickly,” Stewart said. “Would that be a turtle reference?” Colbert asked, verifying that Stewart was indeed directing a thinly veiled jab at McConnell’s appearance. Stewart, alongside the man who co-hosted his 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, delivered the real punchline next: “It’s actually just a little red meat for the base.”
Stewart’s role, as an elder statesman of political accountability that often doesn’t feel political, is especially poignant at a time when entertainment and politics have converged in unexpected ways. Just last week, President Trump introduced Kim Kardashian on C-SPAN as “a powerful advocate” for criminal justice reform. Reality-show stardom didn’t impede Kardashian’s path to advocacy (or Trump’s ascension to the presidency, for that matter), though it has prompted scrutiny.
Stewart, meanwhile, has always been slightly uncomfortable with how seriously people take him as a comedian. “The Daily Show” was “not designed to change our political system. It was designed as a mouthpiece for our point of view,” Stewart told New York magazine in 2014. “I never try and confuse what we do on the show with what real people do to change the system.”
But the former late-night host is also aware of his influence as the rare entertainer who can speak to both politicians and to the people they serve, and appears to wield that power cautiously. As Stewart told attendees of his 2010 rally, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."