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Friday, May 22, 2009

Jon Stewart: Foole 

On his fourth album, George Carlin identified his occupation as "Foole", insisting that he prefers to add the silent E at the end "just to piss 'em off". By now, of course, Carlin's stature as a legendary jester who spoke truth to power is well-documented. He found intellectual liberation through the use of humor, and connected to his audiences on a very deep level. He is part of a long tradition of individuals (both fictive and actual) who parlay their position as comic relief into profound wisdom and social commentary.

Jon Stewart is probably the most important foole alive right now. Although he insists that The Daily Show is nothing more than biting humor, he (along with other satellite comedians associated with the show) has ascended to a position of urgent relevance, and I hope passionately that he realizes how much we appreciate his work, as well as the responsibility provided by his position.

About the image: I got it from here, pursuant to a Google Image Search for "Jon Stewart and jester". Obviously JS is a different kind of comedian, but I really love Watchmen, and Mr. Stewart does watch people — and I watch him. And you're watching me watching him watch other people. So I guess it works. (I don't believe Jon has ever had his face slashed by a pregnant Vietnamese woman. Oop, spoiler!)

My first real glimpse of Jon Stewart's transcendent commentary came during his October 2004 appearance on the now-defunct talk show Crossfire.

He took Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to task for engaging in meaningless invective, rather than civilized discourse. Could anyone else make the same point with the same impact? Probably not. People listened when Jon spoke up there, and while obviously many factors go into a network's programming decisions, we all smiled a bit when Crossfire was cancelled soon afterwards.

Some of us also recoiled a bit when Jon Stewart pointed out that his integrity as a commentator is insignificant, because "The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls." (A reference to Crank Yankers, which had its moments.) Obviously I agree with his point that Comedy Central is not CNN. But at the same time, he has the (unique) opportunity to call out people like Henry Kissinger and Bill Kristol. Although he sometimes avoids key questions I'd like to hear (Kissinger on Timor, for example), Jon Stewart does seem to be doing more of the assertive calling-out as his fame allows him the necessary elbow room.

Jim Cramer is a perfect example. As the poster boy for MSNBC's reckless cheerleading for laissez-faire Wall Street hijinks (with Bette Midler as ... The Ringmaster), Cramer took the bait and made himself available. And Jon Stewart nailed the moment. He said exactly what many of us have thought for years, and shed important light on the whole post-regulatory economageddon. (As in the case of HalliBush Wars, Inc., Cramer pled incompetence and promised to do better in the future. Whatever; his response barely mattered. The only honorable thing he could have done is resign from public life.)

(Part one of the interview is below; you can also watch Part Two and Part Three.)

I was going to include a paragraph here about the role of profound importance the foole often occupied in the works of Shakespeare, but to be honest I just got home from school at the end of a very long and (for a variety of dreary reasons) hideous week, so tough crap if you wanted to read that.

Perhaps the best interview I've seen recently with Jon Stewart was one conducted by the great Bill Moyers. They have a thought-provoking conversation with plenty of video clips and in-depth analysis. I really encourage you to watch both parts of the interview — it's quite excellent.

EDIT: It appears these YouTube clips are edited down, without accompanying Daily Show segments. Follow this link for the whole real interview.

And finally, here's a more lighthearted note for us to end on: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert presenting at The Emmys. Perhaps the most glorious moment in the history of award shows. Enjoy!