A Curious Clown Leaves the Stage

Nobody explains reality better than Jon Stewart in his satirical news show. Now he’s leaving… a look back.

By Peter Hossli

stewart_obamaThe anchorman was tripped up by his own vanity. Brian Williams, a presenter with the US TV channel NBC, exaggerated his assignment. As a reporter in Iraq, he claimed that the helicopter he flew in was hit by grenades in the spring of 2003, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in the desert.

The story sounds heroic and spectacular. Only: it was fabricated. A different helicopter had come under fire and had needed to land immediately. As a result, US journalists tore Williams to shreds and spent days repeatedly calling him a liar. Last February he resigned, having lost his honor, probably for good.

Debunking hypocrisy
One man, however, saw the squabbling around Williams slightly differently – as was often the case. Jon Stewart, 52, anchorman of «The Daily Show», debunked the accusers’ – the journalists’ – hypocrisy.

Sure, Stewart mocked Williams, saying that, like other blow-dried presenters, he was primarily taken with himself and thought he was part of the story. But Stewart went on to show how the US media had spread US government lies before the invasion of Iraq, costing over a million people’s lives. The invasion is a fundamental reason for the current chaos in the Middle East. «Finally, someone is being held responsible for the lies about the war in Iraq,» Stewart said, condensing the truth with the trenchant, relentless sarcasm that has been his hallmark for the past 16 years. At eleven p.m. he weaves wit and scorn into a half-hour news show, which always has the same lofty goal – to tell the truth as accurately as possible.

Laughing Instead of Crying
With this program he has changed journalism. For years, Stewart, a host of a satirical TV show, has had more credibility than traditional reporters. He explains complex topics in a comprehensible way, exposing bigoted politicians as well as corrupt executives. The New York Times very fittingly calls him a «gifted clown with wide-ranging curiosity.» A clown always tells the truth and will make people laugh when they can’t bring themselves to cry.

But all this will soon come to an end. The day after the show about Brian Williams, Jon Stewart – tearfully – announced his own departure. Stewart will probably leave the show this autumn. «Where will I get my news each night?» former US president Bill Clinton, 68, tweeted, upset and to the point.

Stewart doesn’t know yet what he will do. Maybe he’ll go to Hollywood. In 2013, he went on a sabbatical and directed a feature film. «I have a few ideas,» he said on the air. Why is Stewart leaving? «Because I want to have dinner with my family on weekdays again,» says the father of two children. «Several sources have assured me they are quite lovely people.»

«Stop Hurting America»
He is leaving an audience that would rather hear the news laughingly than seriously but which understands very well how the media work – thanks to Stewart. He has shown them how stupidly TV channels behave in their ratings chase, how they become mired in senseless quarrels instead of having serious debates. In the fall of 2004, Stewart lambasted the CNN talk show «Crossfire» precisely for this. The format had a left-wing speaker and a right-wing speaker yapping at each other. «Why are you doing his?» Stewart asked the two yappers, following up with: «Stop hurting America». He triggered a debate that had its consequences. CNN cancelled «Crossfire». The New York Times wrote that Stewart was not slinging mud at the press and politicians, he was only showing how dirty politics and the press really are. «If he’s shooting fish in a barrel, we don’t always have to provide the fish,» the newspaper quoted FOX News TV journalist Greg Gutfeld. In a touch of self-criticism he added: «And we provide a lot of fish.»

stewart_comedyA Boy from New Jersey
Stewart grew up in New Jersey, within view of Manhattan. He studied psychology. «My most important decision was to move to New York,» Stewart once said in a radio interview. On the other side of the Hudson River a new world revealed itself to him. He told jokes as a stand-up comedian on dimly lit club stages, temped in bars and hosted a show on Comedy Central. TV legend David Letterman, 69, got him his own show on MTV in 1993. It flopped. Six years later he was hired for the «Daily Show» at Comedy Central – and went on to change American television as well as the country’s politics.

After the presidential election in the fall of 2000, George W. Bush, 68, and Al Gore, 66, spent weeks struggling for votes in Florida. Stewart however, showed how fragile and ultimately unfair democracy really is in the U.S.; that elections are won with money, not with reasoning. In his first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Stewart cried, showing empathy for the victims, being a victim himself. New York, the city he loves so much, had been attacked.

US President George W. Bush later maintained that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction – and subsequently marched on Baghdad. Most journalists mentally marched with him and for years would only ask very tame questions. Unlike Jon Stewart. Nobody showed more clearly how the US government had been lying to the people before the war.

A Likeable Liberal
He makes no bones about his fondness for liberal Democrats in America, his dislike of conservative Republicans, and yet he criticizes the left. He mocked President Barack Obama, 53, for not participating in the January march for the victims of the attacks on the offices of «Charlie Hebdo», and for not doing enough for the veterans coming home from the war in Iraq.

Stewart made fun of Switzerland in 2009, after the people voted for a ban on building minarets. He started out with mock praise: «Swiss people are so resourceful that there’s not a utensil they don’t have in their pocket. But there is one tool that you won’t find … and that is hate.» He gradually shifted to scorn: «Minarets? Minarets, steeples – tell you what; architecture might be my favorite thing about religion.» Of course he would understand if these buildings began to dominate the skyline.

stewart_minarette«In Switzerland’s defense, I imagine these minaret things were getting out of hand.» The comedian had them counted, arriving at four minarets. Stewart shrugged, rolling his eyes. «I got more minarets than that on my car,» he said, showing a photograph of a Chevy decorated with minarets. With a sigh he addressed the Swiss people: «How did your people get known for their neutrality, and yet they make such an aggressive move?»

Caustic comments have brought him huge success, success that has made him rich. According to «TV Guide», Stewart recently earned between twenty-five and thirty million dollars a year – more than any other anchorman.

Stewart didn’t manage all this by himself. He promoted several other comedians, helping them to secure great careers of their own (see below).

Stephen Colbert, 50, was one of his correspondents and launched his own show, «The Colbert Report», in 2005. On it, he plays an ultra-conservative news anchorman, satirizing this character with relish.

But sneering is not the only thing those two are good at. Stewart and Colbert wrote intelligent books and went to Washington D. C. in late October 2010 to stage their mock «Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear». With them marched around 215,000 people. Stewart, making fun of other rallies, maintained there were millions present. Colbert even tweeted: «Early estimate of crowd size at Rally: 6 billion.»

He was mentor and role model to them: These three comedians  owe their success to Jon Stewart.

Stephen Colbert, 50
Colbert joined «The Daily Show» before Jon Stewart did, in 1997. He was one of the satirical correspondents explaining the world through fabricated news. Colbert played an ultra-conservative journalist – to mock ultra-conservative journalists. In 2005 he expanded the character, creating his show «The Colbert Report». In September 2015, Colbert will abandon this fiction and take over «The Late Show» from David Letterman.

Bassem Youssef, 40
In late January of 2011, the Arab Spring reached Egypt from Tunisia. Egyptian heart surgeon Bassem Youssef was treating wounded people on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Inspired by Jon Stewart, he started a satirical news show on YouTube. Millions began to watch. Youssef started the TV show «Al-Bernameg» (The Program), in which he ridiculed Egypt’s politicians. In 2014, he cancelled the show for fear of reprisals.

John Oliver, 37
While Jon Stewart was off directing a feature film in the summer of 2013 he left the job of anchorman to a Brit, John Oliver. This stand-up comedian from Birmingham joined the «The Daily Show» in July 2006. His bone-dry, crystal-clear British humor often was the highlight of the show. In 2014, HBO offered him his own show, «Last Week Tonight with John Oliver», where he deals with very serious topics in a highly satirical way.

williamsThe Fall of an American TV Icon
In any democracy, journalists have a great responsibility: They have to tell the truth, they must not lie.

Because he lied, Brian Williams (55) has lost his job. He used to be the star among American news anchormen. Since December 2, 2004, he had been presenting «NBC Nightly News», the American TV network’s prime-time news program, which earned him an annual salary of ten million dollars. Williams was worth his money. With an average of 9.3 million viewers, this program was the leader among American news shows.

Since February 10, 2015, Williams has no longer been presenting the news. His salary is on hold because he has lost his credibility and the people’s trust.

The tall TV icon had exaggerated his assignments as a war reporter. During the invasion in Iraq in 2003, Williams was an embedded reporter, travelling with American soldiers. At the time he correctly reported that an American helicopter flying in front of them had been shot at. Now, twelve years later – Williams was no longer a reporter but an anchorman – and was telling a rather different story: His helicopter had supposedly been targeted and needed to make an emergency landing after being hit. Soldiers who had been flying with him at the time denied this. Recently, other reports by Williams have come under suspicion of having misrepresented reality.

That was too much for NBC. For the time being the network has suspended Williams from duty for six months. No one believes that the fallen star will ever be able to save his honor and come back.