Jon Stewart has been heralded by the media in recent weeks as everything from a “genius” to the Walter Cronkite of our generation to even a “messiah” who “changed the world.” But as we approach the end of his 16-year run as host of The Daily Show this Thursday, I must dissent from all these hosannas and tell you there’s one thing Stewart was very wrong about.
I discovered Stewart’s “big mistake” a little over three years ago when I, along with my co-director Negin Farsad, interviewed him in connection with our comedy documentary, The Muslims Are Coming! We asked Stewart about whether he believed his work on The Daily Show had a real impact on issues.
Stewart’s response was a resounding no. Assuming he was simply being modest, we pressed the late-night host. But Stewart made it clear that he sincerely didn’t believe he had moved the needle on the issues he had railed against over the years. He even ticked off examples of where he had failed to cause change despite his best efforts, such as the hypocrisy of politicians, big money in politics, and the media’s sensationalizing of stories in pursuit of ratings.
These comments by Stewart have been kicking around my head a lot in the last few days as we approach the end of his tenure on The Daily Show. And after a great deal of thought, I have to come to this conclusion: Stewart was absolutely and unequivocally wrong. Not only has Stewart influenced many issues to varying degrees, he also had a profound impact on my own life.
The one issue that jumps out where Stewart had a tangible impact was funding for the first responders who had contracted chronic illnesses while working at Ground Zero. In 2010, a measure to provide funding to help these first responders was pending in Congress, but Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block the bill.
In stepped Stewart, who championed the issue by featuring a panel of first responders on his show. Within three days of that episode, the bill passed. Kenny Specht, the founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, summed up what Stewart meant to the passage of this bill: “I’ll forever be indebted to Jon because of what he did.”
Stewart also raised awareness about numerous other issues through comedy, often ones that most pundits avoided. One example was Stewart’s concern for the Palestinian civlians killed by the Israeli military over the years. Stewart raised this issue in earnest in a 2009 segment titled “Gaza Strip Maul” that highlighted the 700-plus Palestinian civilians that had been recently killed by the IDF, calling it a “civilian carnage Toyotathon.”
And during last summer’s Gaza war, Stewart not only mocked the argument that the people of Gaza had a place to flee to (“what are they supposed to do, swim for it?!”), he also pressed his guest Hillary Clinton over her hawkish views on the conflict.
Stewart knew full well that that by speaking out about Palestinian suffering, he would be criticized. And sure enough he was viciously attacked by right-wing Israel supporters such as Mark Levin and anti-Muslim hatemonger Pam Geller, who called Stewart “the most disgusting Jew on the planet.”
To me, Stewart’s discussion of this issue over the years was at least partially, if not primarily, responsible for the outpouring of concern voiced by celebrities like Madonna, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and the NBA’s Dwight Howard over the IDF’s killing of Palestinian civilians last summer. And in turn this has influenced the view many hold on the issue, as I witnessed firsthand on social media.
Stewart has also used comedy to highlight a range of issues from railing against the Iraq War, to discussing the desperate need to counter gun violence, to focusing on police misconduct, and to the effort by some on the right to use “religious liberty” as an excuse to discriminate against gays. His work made us laugh and made us smarter, which is undoubtedly why a May poll named him the top political pundit in America, far eclipsing the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. This same poll unsurprisingly found Stewart to be the most fearless pundit, noting that he was unafraid to confront “issues that others ignore.”
Apart from political issues, Stewart has also had a meaningful impact on my life. The most direct was that he agreed to be in the The Muslims Are Coming! documentary I co-directed. He didn’t have any skin in the fight against anti-Muslim bigotry, but battling bigotry was important to Stewart regardless of the community being targeted.
And in the bigger picture, Stewart has made political comedy more appealing, especially to college-aged audiences. This not only meant more informed young people, it also meant more bookings at colleges for me and other political comedians. While I won’t deny that the extra income was very helpful, you have to understand that most political comedians view ourselves as activists to some degree. Thanks to Stewart making the genre more popular, the increased bookings enabled us to spread our comedy message farther and wider in the hopes of changing people’s views.
Stewart has been an inspiration to millions, including me, encouraging us to speak out on issues. Of course, not everyone will miss him as Donald Trump recently made clear on Twitter: “While Jon Stewart is a joke, not very bright and totally overrated, some losers and haters will miss him and his dumb clown humor. Too bad!”
I hope there comes a day when Stewart realizes that he did more than make us laugh. He truly made a difference.