article

03.18.09

How Jon Stewart Went Bad

There is a virtual ban on criticism of him in the press. Uncritical praise corrupts absolutely.

Jon Stewart’s recent attack on CNBC’s Jim Cramer was so brilliantly performed, so smoothly produced and cruelly compelling, almost nobody noticed that it didn’t make sense. The climax came as Stewart put up a number of grainy clips of Cramer describing how to artificially (and unethically) depress a company’s stock price. The video was damning. Cramer looked sweaty.

Stewart summed up the significance of what Cramer had said on the tape: “You can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG, and all this derivative-market stuff,” he said sternly.

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.

Except that you can’t draw any such line. In the video, Cramer hadn’t mentioned derivates or securitized loans or credit-default swaps, or any of the other exotic financial instruments that caused the fall of AIG and the current recession. There’s no evidence that Jim Cramer had anything to do with any of that, and Stewart didn’t offer any.

Before Cramer could defend himself, Stewart moved on to a new charge: Cramer and his colleagues at CNBC had known that the financial sector was in imminent danger of collapse, but had pretended otherwise—a ruse that Stewart described as “disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”

This was even more farther-fetched. A ratings-hungry TV network had the scoop of the decade but decided to sit on it? Why? In order to curry favor with soon-to-be-disgraced corporate executives? It didn’t make sense.

No matter. Cramer was almost incoherent by this point, cringing and apologetic. Stewart was becoming furious. “I understand you want to make finance interesting,” he said, “but it’s not a fucking game. And I, I, I—when I watch that, I can’t tell you how angry that makes me.”

Cynics might assume that the fury was a pose. Humor requires ironic detachment, and nobody as funny and sophisticated as Jon Stewart could possibly be getting that mad on TV over something so abstract. A fair assumption, but wrong. Stewart really was enraged. It was all entirely, strangely real.

I know this from my own run-in with Stewart, on CNN’s Crossfire a few weeks before the 2004 election. Stewart spent a couple of segments lecturing Paul Begala and me about how we were somehow “helping the politicians and the corporations,” a charge that baffled me then (I’ve never particularly liked either one), as it does now.

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. In August 2004, a week before the Republican convention, Stewart got an interview with then-candidate John Kerry. At the time, reporters covering Kerry couldn’t get closer than the rope line, so the interview qualified as a booking coup.

Stewart squandered it embarrassingly. His first question (after, “How are you holding up?”) was: “Is it a difficult thing not to take it personally” when your opponents are mean?

“You know what it is, Jon?” Kerry replied. “It’s disappointing.”

Four years later, Stewart had become, if anything, even softer. Over the course of a reverential eight-and-a-half minute interview with Barack Obama six days before the election, Stewart failed to ask a single substantive question, much less venture into policy (though, as with Kerry, he did open with, “How are you holding up?”). Instead, like the cable-news morons that he often criticizes, Stewart stuck strictly to the horserace, at one point even resorting to a sports metaphor.

And he sucked up, hard. “So much of this has been about fear of you,” Stewart empathized. “Has any of this fear stuff stuck with the electorate?”

Facing puffballs like this, Obama coasted through with snippets from his stump speech. The result wasn’t simply uninformative, it was boring. Obama didn’t say a single interesting thing, and Stewart wasn’t funny.

If you didn’t actually see the show, you wouldn’t know any of this, since there is a virtual ban on critical stories about Jon Stewart in the press. Nobody in memory has received a longer free ride. (CNBC stands in such awe of Stewart, the network hasn’t even tried to defend itself, even against his claim that its programming might be criminal.)

The relationship between Stewart and the media is a marriage of the self-loathing and the self-loving: He insists their real news is fake, they insist his fake news is real. He doesn't take them seriously at all. They take him way too seriously. But nobody takes anybody as seriously as Jon Stewart takes himself.

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. Can you remember the last time Stewart said anything his viewers might disagree with?

Like most sermons, Stewart’s showdown with Jim Cramer ended with a neat moral lesson. Once journalists who cover business regain their sense of responsibility and “start getting back to fundamentals on the reporting,” Stewart said gravely, “I can get back to making fart noises and funny faces.”

But it’s too late. The great comedian is gone, maybe forever. Jon Stewart is stuck in lecture mode.

RELATED:

How the Stewart/Cramer Smackdown Started

Watch the 7 Best Cable-TV Feuds

Tucker Carlson is a contributor to the Fox News Channel.  He previously hosted The Situation with Tucker Carlson and Tucker on MSNBC after working for CNN.