Daily Show host Jon Stewart, the pied piper of young political passion, turns 50 today
Today he reaches the same age as the Rolling Stones band, James Bond movies and another world-famous New Jersey native, Jon Bon Jovi.
But now that Daily Show star Jon Stewart has turned the magic age of 50 – moving out of the show’s own target demographic of viewers aged 18 to 49 – the question arises:
What does it mean when the voice of the nation’s young, politically-savvy news consumers turns into an old guy?
Ask some experts who deconstruct the Daily Show’s impact on politics, society and media and they have a simple answer: Not much at all.
"I’m not sure he speaks for a generation as much as he speaks to a generation,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, a professor at at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. and author of the book Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement.
“For a certain viewer, the Generation Xers, the back end of the Baby Boomers and younger people, Jon Stewart speaks in a voice that appeals to us – smart and savvy, but not cynical,” added Jones. “Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw, these older media figures, they speak dripping with cynicism. But President Obama and Jon Stewart…they have a sense of hope.”
According to a recent story in the trade magazine Variety, about 1.4 million of the 2.4 million people watching Stewart’s Daily Show this season fall in the magic 18 to 49 demographic advertisers love. He’s forged a constituency across college-educated viewers of many stripes, from urban hipsters and actual students to monied suburbanites, according to an analysis on the Wall Street Journal's Politics Counts blog.
(He’s also, once again, a contender for Time magazine’s Man of the Year award in 2012; the magazine said Monday he has “reached icon status in America.”)
In many ways, Stewart has already become an institution -- an anti-institution, perhaps – encouraging viewers and fans to challenge hypocrisy, misinformation and vacuity in government and media whenever it rears an ugly head.
Since taking over the Daily Show from founding host Craig Kilborn in 1999, the comic born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz has turned the program more toward digging up telling truths about our media and political age. Once known as the guy passed over for late-night hosting gigs at CBS and ABC, Stewart actually lucked out; the showbiz gods were saving him for a better purpose, saving media and politics from itself.
Cool as the jokes are, Stewart realized early on the show's juice comes from capturing when real-life events go off the rails. In his hands, the show has challenged CNBC host Jim Cramer for missing the economic downturn, lawmakers for failing to help 9/11 emergency responders and the news media in general for a madding habit of failing to cut through the nonsense in stories, exemplified by cable news anchors’ habit of prematurely ending discussions with the limp phrase “we’ll have to leave it there.”
Even his most recent successes – including a Daily Show segment noting that the “traditional America” Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and fellow analyst Bernard Goldberg now pine for after November’s elections once didn’t include Irish or Jewish people – seem more about pointing out hypocrisy in a puckish way that young people can admire.
“(Stewart) has been able to project a level of neutrality and trust other comedians have achieved, too; they can live in the establishment, but project the idea they’re on the side of youth,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, editor of the book The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impact of Fake News. “They are willing to critique the establishment from the inside…(Stewart) has that cool factor and he’s likable, which probably is more important (for youth appeal) than his age.”
Stewart even joked about his age before taping one of the four Daily Show episodes in Tampa during the Republican National Convention back in August. “I’m onstage right now wearing makeup, wearing a suit; you might think ‘That guy doesn’t have osteoporosis,’ but I do!” he said, laughing at the suggestion from a fan that he stop by a party at the University of Tampa. “I’m an old man.”
The last time I interviewed Stewart, back in 2007, he swatted aside notions that he changed the way people view media and politics, particularly refusing to take credit for convincing CNN to dump the argument show Crossfire after a 2004 appearance where he told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala they were “hurting America.”
"I think I was tired, and i think the tone the gentlemen on the show took with me took me aback," he said then. "About halfway through, I realized 'Oh, the only people you can't put on Crossfire is, the hosts of Crossfire...One thing you never want to be a part of in this business is great television, because it's awfully uncomfortable."
He also shrugged off talk of the show's greatness. "We exist as a televised editorial cartoon every day," Stewart said. "for the most part, it's a couple of irrational, quizzical looks at trhe camera, a fine and dandy penis joke, and a reference to the American legislative process and we're done with the show."
“We’re not activists in anybody’s army; we’re not trying to prove anything,” he said. “You say, let’s try to make this funny or a little bit interesting or bizarre…I feel we do our best when we feel passionately about something and are working in a sweet spot, in a zone where it feels like you’re working, but not labored.”
And even then, he refused to give up on mainstream media, despite all the reasons they have given him to lose hope.
“You want to look at (media) like this giant organism that functions independently, (but) it’s made up of a lot of individual fiefdoms, many of which are extremely worthwhile,” he said. “I think history has always proven things are cyclical; I would be surprised if there wasn’t a comeback.”
Perhaps, but right now it seems media dysfunction is the gift which keeps on giving for the daily show and its now-AARP-eligible host. Happy birthday, Mr. Stewart. And you're welcome.