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Jon Stewart’s vaudevillian genius

A comedy era comes to an end

Tom Shone | August 5th 2015

There’s been a demob-happy, end-of-school looseness to Jon Stewart as he counts down to his final “Daily Show” on Thursday night. For one thing, he has been blowing kisses to Donald Trump with undisguised glee, not just for being a gift from the gods—“comedy entrapment” as he put it—but for helping to push him across the finishing line. Doing a bit on Mike Huckabee’s characterisation of Obama’s Iran deal as marching Israel “to the door of the oven”, Stewart bypassed words altogether, miming slack-jawed amazement, eye-popping incredulity and Scooby-Doo befuddlement (“Urrgh?”) in what amounted to a small masterclass of silent clowning. The idea seemed to come from Stewart’s dismay at having to write another eye-rolling commentary for another burst of Republican crazy-talk, depletion forcing further invention from him. Exhausted, he still riffs, in part because exhaustion is the correct response to a country in which a deal aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons is compared to the Holocaust.

American pop-culture success is dependent on doing two things extremely well: a very complicated thing and a very simple thing. The complicated thing that Stewart did well has been the subject of the many tributes comparing him to Edward R. Murrow and A.J. Liebling. Stewart combed the pronouncements of America’s public figures, painstakingly researched their inconsistencies, teased out their humbug in video montages that made their hypocrisy seem almost self-evident, then sat in frank amazement at the low-hanging fruit with which he seemed to have been presented. By the end, so primed were the audience for his mugging that he shaved it down to the most minimal of expressions: a cocked eyebrow, a look of deadpan despair, a jowly double take. Like Sloppy in Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend”, he could “do the police in different voices”, tending to a small barnyard of favourite impressions. He reduced Dick Cheney to a single quack, Bush to a Mutley-esque laugh (“heh-heh-heh”) and Trump to a De Niro-esque New Joisey thug.

That was the simple thing he did extremely well: the mugging. Amidst all the deserved tributes to Stewart’s nuance and intelligence and irony and sense of civic outrage, let’s not pretend that these things alone could make his show the success it has been: 19 Emmys, a BAFTA, a clutch of awards from America’s Writers Guild and Producers Guild, fans across the political divide, and tributes now pouring in from presidents old, new and aspirant. He was also a consummate vaudevillian. The retrospective montages of his schtick that guests have been introducing—his singing, his notoriously sketchy interview prep, his hypochondria, his references to his Jewishness—have served to remind us how firmly he belongs in a tradition that includes Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. “You know, satire isn’t journalism,” he once said. “That’s not to suggest that we’re not responsible for the content that we put out there. I stand behind the point of view. That being said, the tools we use are exaggeration, hyperbole, puns, imitation, ridicule. Sometimes they can cut through things in an easier way but generally in a more superficial way. It distils something to a more visceral element that does not generally present a grander picture.”

It is Stewart’s visceral, antic side that made him the perfect foil for an America which has only doubled down on the outlandishness first outlined by Philip Roth in a 1961 essay for Commentary. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents,” Roth wrote, “and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” The reputation of “The Daily Show” as a “fake news” show was always a little misleading, just as the frequently expressed alarm that the show was a trusted news source for the young was largely misplaced: the news Stewart reported was perfectly real, and his takedowns of what he called cable news’s “24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-panic-conflictinator” frequently produced better examples of journalism—more closely sourced and researched—than the broadcasters he was discussing. Stewart created and occupied his own place in American broadcasting culture, somewhere between Cronkite and Carson: he was never just an entertainer nor ever less than a great newsman. That we should be so confused as to his exact status is not just revealing of a culture in which entertainment and news have blurred into one another—it is exactly the sort of thing Stewart used to satirise. Add our name to the roll-call of the bereft: he will be much missed.

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