The importance of Jon Stewart

When you ask the twentysomething crowd where they get their news, few will mention the daily newspaper or the mainstream nightly news anchors. Most get their information from a laptop or a phone, and many will admit The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart accounts for much of their take on what’s up and what’s down in U.S. politics these days.

Given my new vantage point in New York City, I decided to see for myself what the fuss is all about. To be perfectly honest, I am a little behind the curve here—Stewart’s popularity steadily rising over the past decade and Colbert’s success alone as a spinoff from The Daily Show says a lot about the latter’s strength in the marketplace. So about a week ago, courtesy of a friend who is a writer on the show, I attended a taping of Jon Stewart’s show.

Hilarious pre-show banter set the mood as we awaited the headliner. Then, about 15 minutes before the taping began, Stewart walked on stage for a question and answer period with the audience. It was a no-holds-barred exchange that showcased Stewart at his best, explaining, for instance, why he is afraid of Dick Cheney, and offering up his take on Joe Biden’s loose lips.

When the show began, the gloves came off. The theme that day was immigration reform and here Stewart showed his liberal bias by taking on Senator John McCain’s recent flip-flops on the subject. Flashing back to a time when McCain favoured an approach close to that of Senator Teddy Kennedy, Stewart contrasted McCain’s “pre-insane” positions with his more recent pronouncements, which are now closer to the far-right positions of his opponent in Arizona. Very funny, but at the same time, very devastating. Even though McCain will most likely beat the challenge from his right-wing opponent, J.D. Hayworth, a segment like this reduces his stature as a national political figure.

The next segment featured an interview with a local Arizona politician sponsoring the state’s controversial measures on illegal immigration. By highlighting the inconsistencies and contradictions of the guest, the interview undermined Arizona’s methods in its crusade against illegal immigration and made the politician look foolish. In all, it was a half-hour of fabulous entertainment with a message.

Outside the mainstream media, serious sites like Politico, RealClearPolitics, the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post have come to dominate the political blogosphere. Meanwhile, cable stations like FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN, with their opinionated news reporting, have remained vital contributors to the daily television news cycle. But even if the comedy shows present things in a lighthearted way, they at times provide an equally factual account of significant trends in the news. And since humour has long been a driver of television audiences, it is not surprising to find prominent politicians positioning themselves to be invited on these shows. Make no mistake, these shows are taken seriously by leading political operatives in U.S. politics.

The Daily Show is certainly worth a spin for the uninitiated. And having seen Stewart live in action, easily interacting with his staff and the audience, he is not a passing fad. There was a certain magic in the air—the feeling it is possible to treat otherwise serious subjects with humour while still allowing the messages to get through. These twentysomethings are definitely on to something.

[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s Delegate General in New York City]