February 15, 2024 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

Do we really need Jon Stewart’s political nihilism?

That joke isn’t funny anymore, writes Stephen Robinson.

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Editor’s note: The following, sent to Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in The Play Typer Guy, Stephen’s newsletter.

When Jon Stewart announced his return to The Daily Show after eight years, I flashed back to the 2020 Democratic primary. There were a wide variety of candidates who weren’t Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. We could’ve gone with women of different ages and shades. There were charming men of color and even some safe, moderate white guys. Ultimately, the party’s choice — and I mean voters not people in smoke-filled rooms — was reliable Joe Biden, a figure from the past we all remembered fondly.

Comedy Central went in the same direction after Trevor Noah left The Daily Show. Like Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, Noah was young, gifted, and Black. His seven-year run felt like The Daily Show had fully moved into the next generation. For what seemed like a year because that’s exactly how long it was, the show had rotating guest hosts who could’ve continued the march forward if Comedy Central had just chosen someone … anyone.

“These two candidates are similarly challenged,” Stewart said, which is untrue. Biden walks slower than he used to, while Trump is a delusional psychopath who sides with dictators over America’s allies. That is not how Merriam-Webster defines “similar.”

Former correspondent Roy Wood Jr. tired of the merry-go-round and left the show. He would’ve been an amazing host, although my personal preference (not that anyone asked me) was either Leslie Jones or Desi Lydic. (Taylor Tomlinson’s After Midnight is a game show, so there really is no woman hosting a late night show with a political bent.)

Democrats went with Biden in 2020 instead of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro or Cory Booker. Comedy Central brought back Stewart, at least for one night a week. However, while I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Biden’s ability to adapt to a new era, Stewart’s first show back disappointed me.

The reviews were mostly positive. The Post declared, “He’s back, he’s funny as ever, and this time he’s ready to fight … everyone!” Critics raved that Stewart skewered both Biden and Trump with equal savagery. Of course, only one of those men is an indicted insurrectionist who was found liable for sexual assault. However, both men are old. Not surprisingly, the news outlets that specialize in “both sides” reporting were thrilled with Stewart’s “equal-opportunity” political pugilism.

OK, what did I just watch?
Just like old times, Stewart dubbed the upcoming election “Indecision 2024” with the subtitle “Antiques Roadshow.” You see, both Trump and Biden are very old.

“We are not suggesting neither man is vibrant, productive or even capable,” he said, and already, we’re off to a bad start. Trump was not a productive or capable president. I know Stewart has been away for a while, but surely he read a newspaper between the years 2017 and 2021. The January 7 editions would’ve proven especially enlightening.

“But they are both stretching the limits of being able to handle the toughest job in the world,” Stewart continued. “It is not crazy to think that the oldest people in the history of the country to ever run for president might have some … challenges.”

Nancy Pelosi became the oldest person to hold the speaker’s gavel in February 2020. Afterward, she passed a life-saving covid relief bill, held off Trump’s coup and sent major bills to Biden’s desk with a narrow majority. It’s the Republican speakers decades her junior who had some challenges.

Stewart doesn’t appear to have any pointed policy concerns about a second Biden administration. It’s just his age. Trump is still an existential threat to US democracy and global stability whether he’s old, middle-aged or baby fresh. The relevant number isn’t the candidates ages of 81 and 77 but the 91 felony counts that Trump is facing.

“These two candidates are similarly challenged,” he said, which is untrue. Biden walks slower than he used to, while Trump is a delusional psychopath who sides with dictators over America’s allies. That is not how Merriam-Webster defines “similar.”

Last weekend, the media obsessively covered Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report, which claimed, based on a couple interviews, that Biden was a doddering old fool. That was prime material for smart satire, but Stewart took the road most traveled. He presented Not A Doctor Hur’s political hit job as medical fact and suggested that Biden’s slip of the tongue, when he referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi as the president of Mexico, was evidence of mental decline. It is not.

No, Jon, Harris probably doesn’t Instagram Live sensitive foreign policy discussions. It’s revealing that Stewart easily accepts Hur’s harsh depiction of Biden, but demands video footage and two forms of ID before believing the highest-ranking woman in US government.

Stewart showed clips of Democrats supporting the president, which he spun as partisan wagon-circling rather than people who’ve worked closely with Biden attesting to his competence. Vice President Harris is both a former prosecutor — so she knows the difference between evidence and unsupported opinion — and someone who’s been in tense meetings that Biden led as commander-in-chief. She spoke about how Biden was fully engaged and in control on the day of the deadly Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. Dismissing her firsthand account, Stewart snidely responded, “Did anyone film that? That would be good to show to people.”

No, Jon, Harris probably doesn’t Instagram Live sensitive foreign policy discussions. It’s revealing that Stewart easily accepts Hur’s harsh depiction of Biden, but demands video footage and two forms of ID before believing the highest-ranking woman in US government.

Stewart wasn’t always down on Biden. During the summer of 2020, he told his friend Stephen Colbert:

“We are a country in terrible anguish right now. We are in pain. We are fearful and we are angry, and we are in pain. And when I see Biden past the shtick, I see a guy who knows what loss is, who knows grief. And I think that that kind of grief humbles you.”

“Maybe he is the man of the moment,” Stewart added.

Biden was 77 in that moment. Did Stewart assume he’d stopped aging once he entered the White House? That is not a perk of the office. If Stewart believed Biden was the candidate for 2020, then barring alien abduction, Biden is the candidate for 2024. That is how presidencies work. Competent political parties don’t sacrifice incumbency without conceding failure and setting themselves up for a colossal loss. This is why Democrats with actual political futures didn’t challenge Biden. They knew they’d either lose the primary or lose the general. Both options lean heavily on the verb “lose.”

Replacing Biden is also unnecessary because Biden has done a good job. A Trump-Biden rematch is depressing because Trump should be in jail, but Biden has earned a second term, just as much as Obama and Bill Clinton.

Effective satire vs. cynical posturing
Monday night, I posted some mild criticism of Stewart’s return and some Stewart fans responded that the left can’t tolerate mild criticism. Now, that is funny! Look, I am not a reflexive cheerleader for Biden or the Democratic Party. One of the reasons I started my own newsletter (please consider a paid subscription!) was that I wanted the freedom to criticize Democrats and their policies whenever I disagreed.

However, Stewart’s “roast” of Biden and Trump wasn’t an informed critique. It felt like he’d learned nothing from 2015 when he savored the prospect of a Trump candidacy. Trump would “spice up” what was otherwise an inevitable and “dull” Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush matchup. But Stewart at his best understood that politics shouldn’t revolve around pro-wrestling showmanship to engage voters. Thoughtful analysis instead of cheap jokes is what I appreciate about John Oliver’s program, and I thought Stewart had followed that model somewhat with his short-lived The Problem With Jon Stewart. Pre-Trump hipster cynicism isn’t constructive now. It actually never was.

Stewart proactively defended his stale act: “The stakes of this election don’t make Donald Trump’s opponent less subject to scrutiny,” he said. “It actually makes him more subject to scrutiny.”

Obsessing over Biden’s age and promoting the right-wing narrative that he’s senile isn’t “scrutiny” or even good satire. It’s Hillary Clinton’s emails or, worse, Obama’s tan suit. Stewart, the man who once condemned hack journalism, now demands form over function.

Pre-Trump hipster cynicism isn’t constructive now. It actually never was.

Yes, I’m aware that Stewart also mocked Trump’s memory and recent gaffes, but that’s the 2016 comedic excuse again. Stewart and other comedians dinged Trump’s excesses while also painting Clinton as shifty and untrustworthy. This benefitted Trump, and even if you’re so privileged as to not care about the political impact, “both sides” humor is lazy. These days, it’s outright slander.

The Daily Show often took the position that government and politics are an absurd waste of time. Everyone’s a buffoon. Only a few (mostly white male) politicians are genuine, and that won’t last. Stewart seems content to continue what he started 25 years ago.

“The next nine months or so — and maybe more than that depending on the coup schedule — are gonna suck,” he said. “On the plus side, I’m told that at some point, the sun will run out of hydrogen.”

Democracy doesn’t suck, and we still have one for now. We can organize, canvass and most importantly vote. Stewart suggests we hide under our beds and wait for death. That’s the Republican “keep out the vote” strategy. This is something else Stewart failed to learn from his 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity,” where rather than specifically condemning a far-right, know-nothing political movement (the Tea Party) he ridiculed political passion in general.

I come back to Noah’s final moments as Daily Show host when he said, “I always tell people: If you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women. Because unlike everybody else, Black women cannot afford to fuck around and find out.”

“Black people understand how hard it is when things go bad, especially in America, but any place where Black people exist,” he continued. “When things go bad, Black people know that it gets worse for them. But Black women, in particular, they know what shit is, genuinely.”

Stewart doesn’t seem interested in that lesson, either.

Stephen Robinson is the publisher of The Play Typer Guy, a newsletter and podcast about politics and the arts. Follow him @SER1897.

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