I always watch the Oscars, but of course I was especially interested to see last night’s show because I am a total Jon Stewart fanboy. Anyway, the show sucked, and I’m not sure whether Jon Stewart was at fault. Either he was the only redeemable bit, or he was a big part of the problem. Either way, it was awful. About halfway through I pledged to myself not to watch next year, because it was just that boring. I didn’t get the sense that the audience was eating up Stewart’s jokes, even the ones that I thought were pretty funny.
Anyway, in the time during the show when I wasn’t hoping for a meteor to put an end to my misery, I was thinking about what it is I like so much about The Daily Show in general and Jon Stewart in particular. The fact that he’s a liberal doesn’t hurt, but that’s not really it. The thing I admire about Stewart is his obsession with the truth (rather than truthiness). There are plenty of people out there who bill themselves as truth tellers, but who don’t really meet the definition. The obvious comparison here would be to the Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of the world, people who claim to tell the truth but lie constantly. But that’s too easy.
Instead I want to compare Jon Stewart to Bill Maher. You’d think that Jon Stewart and Bill Maher would have a lot in common. They’re comedians who do topical talk shows with guests, bits, and monologues. They’re both situated at the leftward end of the political spectrum. But the similarities end there. Bill Maher is, I think, an honest guy who pretty much always gives his honest opinion. But his primary interest is not revealing the truth. He has points to make, and if a little embellishment or obfuscation help him make his points, then so be it. He’s sloppy with the truth because it matters to him less than his point of view.
Contrast that with Jon Stewart, who rarely ever discusses his point of view, even if he’s the one being interviewed. It’s not difficult to discern what he thinks from the topics he chooses to cover, but it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine him sitting there and telling us how we should get health care costs under control or what kind of relationship the United States should have with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Daily Show spends no time telling us to be outraged and instead simply exposes us to the outrageous. That, to me, is ultimately a more powerful way to communicate.