The “Problem” With Jon Stewart? Too Honest?

Like millions of people who share my demography, background and essential political leanings, I’m a huge fan of Jon Stewart’s, arguably more than I ever have been.  And even though I wasn’t a regular viewer of THE DAILY SHOW when he built it up to a cultural touchstone when he was hosting it, well, daily, I’ve always appreciated his appetite for the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable and/or inconvenient.  Ever since it cost me the chance to actually have had a professional relationship with him.

The one time I met him was during a NATPE convention when I was consulting for a new TV station that had just signed on in Orlando, Florida.  It was the year where his onetime MTV sleeper hit talk show had been tapped by the newly synergistic Paramount regime to become a de facto replacement for THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW.  Paramount had sold his show with its usual hype and bluster and argued it would be just as impactful as Hall’s show was when it premiered, quickly annihilating CBS’ ill-fated Pat Sajak gabfest and establishing itself as a viable reciprocal demographic skew to Johnny and Jay.  But in Orlando, it was relegated to a 12:30 AM slot where was barely breaking even with the then equally niche appeal Conan O’Brien.

Stewart’s show was struggling everywhere; their “strategy” was to attempt to find more “organically opportunistic” time slots to save the franchise.  My client had had a meeting set up with Paramount’s sales executive which Stewart was asked to sit in on; they were going to become the UPN affiliate in the market and as a result had a quasi favored-nations status with the top brass.  But as a start-up, our ratings paled even to the weaker time slots on Stewart’s station, and we all sort of knew that.  I was invited to sit in to play “bad cop” and save face, knowing full well moving the show to our air wouldn’t have benefitted anyone.

I was introduced as a fellow Mets fan by the Paramount rep, which endeared me to Stewart at the outset.  The sport was in the midst of a strike that had cancelled the prior fall’s World Series.  Stewart exclaimed “We haven’t lost since August!!”.  I responded “The way we’ve been playing, we can only hope it lasts till at least this August”.  And as the Paramount rep fumbled his way through his spiel, Stewart, myself and my client exchanged eye rolls.  Once he had concluded the pitch, Stewart’s contribution was “And you guys have to PROMISE that all of those viewers that go to bed early will stay up and watch us on your station!”.  “I dunno”, said my client.  “You know the theme parks are open later now.  They might not get home in time”.  We parted without a deal, but amicably.

So from that point on I’ve known he’s a straight shooter, even when it might irk some of the powers that be.  And lately that’s been truer than ever.  His opening monologue on Monday night’s show really struck more than a few nerves, as THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s James Hibberd reported:

Jon Stewart criticized Joe Biden and the White House’s response to ongoing concerns about the president’s mental fitness and candidacy.

Returning to The Daily Show on Monday night, Stewart played recent clips of Biden struggling with his words as the president tried to reassure voters in the wake of his disastrous debate performance on June 27 (a debate that Stewart called “a shocking display of cognitive difficulty”). Stewart also played clips of Biden and his supporters offering an array of excuses to explain the president’s performance (such as the debunked claim that the president was jet lagged from a trip taken two weeks earlier).

For a campaign based on honesty and decency, the spin about the debate appears to be blatant bullshit, and the redemption tour hasn’t gone that much better,” Stewart said. “We’re told that the threat of Trump is so great and the stakes are so high that even bringing up these absolutely legitimate concerns about the president’s ability to do the most vigorous job in the world for the next four years is enabling fascism. Yet even the president doesn’t seem particularly alarmed.”

And as MSNBC’s Jacques Berlinerblau observed in an opinion piece from Tuesday, this time Stewart more than doubled down on his angst:

Monday, an  agitated Stewart bristled at the notion that by criticizing Biden he was “enabling facism.” He mocked Biden’s resigned response to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that if Trump wins, he’ll console himself as having done his best.  After showing a clip of Biden saying, “As long I gave it my all and I did the goodest job that I know I can do. That’s what this is about.” Stewart responded angrily: “THAT’S NOT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT!” Riding that rage, Stewart fumed: “There are no participation trophies in end-game democracy.”

He dutifully reminded his audience that Democrats could work this all out at, let’s say, a convention. In a place like Chicago, perhaps? In like, six weeks maybe?… In the flurry, Stewart clarified “I am not saying Biden should drop out; [but] can’t we open up the conversation?”

And with that tirade, Stewart all but reached in to the inner workings of a great deal of his audience, even though too bamboozled or “binary choiced” out to openly opine with similar sentiments.  And included in that audience are a goodly number of elected officials and their staffers who are living with the fallout of a compromised, polarizing, aging candidate who steadfastly chooses to ignore actual polls and feedback and continues to cling to an innate belief that “he alone can fix it”.  And no, this time that’s not the obese golfer.

Biden and his most loyal stooges are at best hate-watching; they haven’t been all that thrilled with the second coming of Stewart on Comedy Central since it began this past winter.  As NEXSTAR’s Justin Kounelias wrote in February:

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked her thoughts about Jon Stewart’s return to “The Daily Show,” the late-night show that launched him into political commentary stardom.

Jean-Pierre admitted she hadn’t seen it but asked, “Was it good?” A reporter then referenced the segment where Jon Stewart lampooned Biden for his feisty defense of the special counsel report released last week.

“Boom! He took them to the house!” Stewart exclaimed, lauding Biden’s pushback against reporters asking questions about mental acuity.

After feigned resignation, Stewart said, “Allow me to present to you a one-man show about what Joe Biden’s advisors were doing when he turned around and went back to the podium. The show is called: No! Do not go back!” he ended with a drawn-out yell.

“The president is going to stand and defend himself,” Jean-Pierre responded. “The way that report was characterized, not just me saying this, legal experts on both sides said it was flatly wrong. And it was gratuitous. And it was inappropriate.”

Thank you, queen of honesty and transparency.

Stewart would likely not have been in a place to irk Jean-Pierre had he not taken a similar tone with his previous employer, as INDIE WIRE’ Christian Zilko wrote last fall:

The Problem with Jon Stewart” will not be returning for a Season 3 on Apple TV+, the New York Times has reported. While the talk show was scheduled to begin filming new episodes in the coming weeks, creative differences between Stewart and Apple executives reached an impasse that led to the show’s abrupt ending.

Per the report, plans to cover sensitive topics including China and artificial intelligence in Season 3 raised eyebrows for Apple executives. It also became clear that the looming 2024 election could create even more editorial headaches. The mutual decision was then made to end the show.

If he was willing to walk away from a sweetheart deal and the unshackling of any constraints from an advertiser-free environment, it’s small wonder he’s more than open to calling out hypocrisy and non-transparency when he sees it.  And, gosh darn it, he’s now beginning to rub off on some of his former, less forceful colleagues.  Per HUFFPOST’s Ed Mazza:

Stephen Colbert didn’t quite join the voices calling on President Joe Biden to step aside.

But the “Late Show” host, generally a strong supporter of the president, came very close on Monday night. 

In his first show since last month’s debate with Donald Trump led to new questions about Biden’s mental stamina and calls for him to drop his reelection bid, Colbert noted that he interviewed the president at a campaign event just three months ago. “That night, he seemed ancient but cogent,” Colbert said. “But our politics have become so weird, I don’t know what’s the right thing to do here.” 

“Self-sacrifice takes a particular kind of courage, and that is a courage I believe Joe Biden is capable of,” Colbert said. “I believe he is good enough man, he is a good enough president, to put the needs of the country ahead of the needs of his ego. And however painful that might be, it is possible handing leadership to a younger generation is the right thing for the greater goodest. Or good as. Either one.”

Maybe that wasn’t one of Colbert’s best lines.  But it’s necessary.  And the Biden syncopants need to hear them.  They need to know how much people are concerned, and no, not just the “elites” desperately trying to save their own political hides.  Stewart’s wailing and eye contact is genuine now.  It’s no longer merely fodder to be funny.  Greg Gutfeld can cover that base.

Stewart is reportedly only committed to THE DAILY SHOW through the November election cycle and, at this stage of life, being elder statesman on a show that’s no longer as popular or influential as it was in his heyday isn’t necessary the ideal allure for him to stick around.  But perhaps he’d consider this: If Jeff Shell was serious about finding ways to produce more cost-conscious content for prime time as he expressed to the investment community during his Monday morning conference calls, he could do way worse than consider utilizing Stewart in a slot where he’s a slightly more controlled version of Howard Beall.  We may very well need common sense as well as comic relief in the months ahead.

Until next time…


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