By 1998, Stewart had done standup. He’d done movies. He’d done TV. He’d published a best-selling book. He’d had—and lost—a show. But he had never really found his niche until, at age 37, he replaced Kilborn on The Daily Show in 1999. After a slightly bumpy beginning, Stewart began to lead the show away from its celebrity focus. He came into his own with the show’s arch and sardonic coverage of the presidential election grandiosely labeled “Indecision 2000.”
The show quickly drew the eyeballs of political junkies and earned a Peabody award, one of broadcast media’s highest honors. “It was in the year 2000 that Jon Stewart officially became a public intellectual,” says Robert Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Then came September 11, 2001. When Stewart came back on the air nine days later, he opened with a somber, halting speech that addressed the sudden absurdity of his jester role as well as its importance. “They said to get back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position,” he said. “We sit in the back and we throw spitballs—never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that.” Stewart choked up, tears in his eyes, and turned to the significance of carrying on:
“The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”
It was a long way from the Bitter End. It was, actually, a beginning: the unwitting kickoff of Jon Stewart as trusted national figure. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the show became a place where viewers came not just to laugh but to be informed. The guest list grew weightier, expanding to include the Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan, the late David Halberstam and newsmen Bill Moyers and Ted Koppel. “When all the news guys were walking on eggshells, Jon was hammering those questions about WMDs,” recalls Thompson. “That’s the kind of thing CNN and CBS should have been doing.”
The Daily Show continues to blend the fake anchor shtick with fake news skits, “reported” by zany correspondents such as Samantha Bee, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Rob Riggle and John Oliver. Where once Stewart could be as clownish as his reporters, he now plays calm. He still curses and goofs around, but he never strays far from being the trusted voice of authority.
It’s impossible to watch The Daily Show without quickly divining that Stewart is Jewish. “Stewart brings a sharpness of wit and a clear desire to never let the audience forget who he is by bringing his Jewishness up again and again,” observes Moshe Waldoks, a rabbi in Brookline, Massachusetts, and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. His cultural Jewishness, that is; Stewart regularly hosts The Daily Show on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. (A New York Mets fan, Stewart did name one of his pit bulls Shamsky, after Art Shamsky, a Mets player who declined to play on Yom Kippur.)
Well-versed in Jewish affairs, he is the first to admit that his knowledge of the religion doesn’t run deep. “I’m not a religious scholar,” Stewart conceded to viewers in 2001. “Let’s face facts: Very few people would confuse me with Maimonides.” He gently pokes fun at his own lack of observance. “I fasted today, not out of any religious duty but because I don’t want to let a day go by where I can’t feel worse about myself. So Happy Yom Kippur to you!” Stewart wished his audience in 2003.
Nevertheless, his satire reverberates with a Jewish sensibility. “We have a long tradition of important Jewish comedians, all dealing with social and political issues,” says Arthur Asa Berger, a professor of communications at San Francisco State University and author of the book Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire, about the comic strip by the famed humorist Al Capp (his given name was Alfred Gerald Caplin). Stewart’s lampooning of America’s political and media elites also has Jewish roots. “I think that there is such a thing as a Jewish psyche, a sense of the prophetic tradition, of speaking truth to power,” says Waldoks.