Stewart himself counts Woody Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg) and Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Alfred Schneider) as well as George Carlin and Richard Pryor among his influences. It’s worth noting that Seinfeld, the show Stewart holds up as the gold standard for his own, has often been called the world’s most famous Jewish comedy in which the word Jew was rarely heard. While Stewart is far more open about his Jewishness than Jerry Seinfeld, his humor is not as centered around it as, for example, Sarah Silverman’s, who styles herself as a Jewish American princess.
Nor is he angrily anti-religion like Bill Maher, the half-Jewish, half-Catholic agnostic who recently brought America the film Religulous and who mercilessly attacks religion on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. “I don’t have a problem with religion,” Stewart once explained to Larry King. “I think that religion provides a lot of people with comfort and solace, but you know, I think what people who aren’t that religious object to is [the belief] that the only way to find values is through religion.”
Religious fundamentalism often crops up as a target in Stewart’s comedy. In 1999, soon after he began hosting The Daily Show, ultra-Orthodox protesters heckled a co-ed group of Reform rabbis for praying together at the Western Wall. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews, desperately fearful of biblical cooties, got all Jewier-than-thou when they discovered that a handful of Reform Jews who actually allow their women to do something other than breed and cook also had the chutzpah to be praying nearby,” he said. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe themselves superior to other Jews, claiming the Word was handed to them directly, right before [God] handed us big noses and took away all our athletic ability.”
Like clockwork, Stewart mentions Jewish holidays throughout the year—like the night he joked about the midnight apple drop into a bowl of honey at Times Square on Rosh Hashanah. Another time, on Larry King Live, he said: “Who amongst us hasn’t thought around Hanukkah, ‘Oh, you’re celebrating the birth of your Savior, and we’re celebrating the fact that the oil lasted longer than we thought it would—what value!’”
The show even gets Jews laughing at sacred cows of all sorts. Stewart is not anti-Israel: “I’m a Jewish guy,” he said during a 1996 standup routine. “I’ve been to Israel; I’m really glad it’s there.” But certainly Israel gets its share of Daily Show attention. Take the preface to John Oliver’s 2001 interview with Dan Gillerman, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Oliver, the tongue-in-cheek British correspondent, pointed to the Holocaust, Spanish Inquisition and pogroms as evidence that “Jews seem to have trouble getting along with people, so it was better to get them their own place.” Later, Oliver asked Gillerman to put to rest the “nasty conspiracy theory…that your country is run by Jews.”
After presidential candidates Clinton, McCain and Obama spoke at the 2008 annual Washington conference hosted by AIPAC, Stewart mocked all three for pandering: McCain talked about having traveled to Israel with Joe Lieberman (“You don’t need to bring your own Jew”); Clinton referenced a passage from Isaiah (“She knows a Jew from the Bible!”); and Obama recalled a Jewish-American camp counselor (“That’s one step from ‘Hey, I rented Yentl once!’”). After waiting to hear some “constructive criticism” of Israeli policies that “may not be in the best interest of the world,” Stewart rolled clips of silence and went for the kill: “Oh! I forgot! You can’t say anything remotely critical of Israel and still get elected president! Which is funny, because you know where you can criticize Israel? Israel!”
Although the topic doesn’t come up often, it’s also evident where Stewart stands on intermarriage. In 2000, he married Tracey McShane, a veterinary technician and a Catholic. Stewart, who does The New York Times crossword puzzle daily, popped the question with a puzzle of his own. The paper’s “Puzzle Master,” Will Shortz, found Stewart a puzzle creator for the occasion.
The Stewarts (they changed their names legally in 2001) live in a loft in lower Manhattan and have two children. Nathan Thomas Stewart, four, is named after his grandfather. Maggie Rose Stewart is two. As Stewart told Tony Blair on The Daily Show in a September 2008 interview, “My wife is Catholic. I’m Jewish. It’s very interesting; we’re raising the children to be sad.”