Jon Stewart’s last appearance as host of “The Daily Show” airs tonight, after a remarkable 16-year run. For years, when interviewers asked Stewart about the political impact of his program, he would protest that he wasn’t trying to get Democrats elected or advance liberal goals; I’m just a comedian, he’d say. Nobody seemed to believe him. But he was right.
That’s not to say that “The Daily Show” has had no political effect. But its effects weren’t about achieving partisan goals, and that’s something conservatives in particular misunderstood.
Periodically, conservatives tried to emulate “The Daily Show,” and they usually failed. Part of the reason is that they looked at Stewart and saw a liberal who happened to be a comedian, using comedy for liberal ends. In truth, he was a comedian who happened to be a liberal, using politics for comedy. When conservatives set out to create comedy that would advance conservatism, the results just weren’t all that funny.
There have been times when Stewart has attempted to achieve a political goal, but when he has — like his advocacy on behalf of the first responders who fell ill after working at the World Trade Center site in the days following 9/11 — it was on non-partisan issues. Not only that, Stewart did it by getting serious. As Dannagal Young, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies political satire, told me, “Satire can shape the public’s and politicians’ agendas, sure. But when Jon Stewart really wanted to affect change, he didn’t do it through jokes. Instead, in those rare instances, he dropped his mask.”
And while the show is politically meaningful, it isn’t because it’s converting Republicans to Democrats. Young explained some of what research has shown about programs like “The Daily Show”:
Fans of political satire consistently exhibit exceptionally healthy democratic characteristics compared to non-viewers: People who watch Stewart and Colbert participate in politics more; they vote more; they discuss politics with friends and family more; they watch cable news more; they get news online more; they listen to NPR more; and—this is a good one—they have more confidence in their ability to understand and participate in political life. And studies consistently indicate that exposure to political satire increases knowledge of current events, leads to further information-seeking on related topics, and increases viewer interest in and attention paid to politics and news.
This runs counter to the idea many have that Stewart’s fans were just a bunch of pot-smoking college kids who laughed at politicians but weren’t involved in the political process. In any case, the primary target of “The Daily Show’s” satire was always the media, and there you can argue that it helped a generation of viewers become more critical news consumers. But even if it often aimed that satire at Fox, it wasn’t just because Fox is conservative, but because Fox is ridiculous. And Stewart went after CNN and other supposedly neutral news organizations just as often.
Indeed, the first time he had a demonstrable real-world impact came in 2004 when he went on CNN’s bicker-fest “Crossfire” and told co-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, “Stop hurting America.” It was simple and straightforward, and the effect was as though the scales suddenly fell from everyone’s eyes — including the network itself — and they realized that there was nothing valuable for anyone in a program that simply brought Democrats and Republicans on TV to yell at each other. Within months the show was cancelled.
And yet, 11 years later there’s still no shortage of “Crossfire”-type content on cable news. Stewart could call attention to it, mock it, and help viewers understand it a little better. But he didn’t have the power to do much about it. A hundred bits about the nincompoops on “Fox & Friends” may have been funny, but that show is still going strong as well.
That’s not an indictment of Stewart as much as it is a statement about the limits of certain kinds of satire. Stewart’s program has been vital for those who enjoy it, but it’s far too much to expect it to be some kind of political powerhouse, lifting or destroying politicians, helping legislation pass, and bringing about broad social change. It’s been interesting, informative, often insightful, and almost always funny. You can’t expect much more.