Monday, January 22, 2018
TV and Media

At 50, Jon Stewart remains relevant with a fanbase half his age

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 — symbolically 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 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 The Daily Show this season are in the magic 18 to 49 demographic advertisers love. Stewart is popular with college-educated fans of all stripes and, once again, a contender for Time magazine's Man of the Year award. The magazine wrote on Monday that Stewart has "reached icon status in America."

In many ways, Stewart already has become an institution, or an anti-institution, perhaps. 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 challenging hypocrisy, misinformation and vacuity in government and media whenever it rears an ugly head.

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 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 the "traditional America" that Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly and fellow analyst Bernard Goldberg now yearn for 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," said Amarnath Amarasingam, editor of the book The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impact of Fake News. "He can live in the establishment, but project the idea he's on the side of youth, critiquing the establishment from the inside."

Stewart even joked about his age before taping one of the four Daily Show episodes presented in Tampa during the Republican National Convention in August. "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 in 2007, he swatted aside notions he changed the way people view media and politics. He also refused to give up on mainstream media, despite all the reasons they have given him.

"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 that keeps on giving for The Daily Show. You're welcome, and happy birthday, Mr. Stewart.

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