By the time you read this, Jon Stewart will have given us our last moment of Zen. A comedian of medium renown when the show started, Stewart built an innovative fake news program on a heretofore little-watched basic-cable comedy channel into an iconic hub of American free speech. Today, the Daily Show is more important than any network news show.
How did he do that?
I would argue that Stewart benefited from the fall in newspaper subscriptions and a downward spiral in network news viewership. He “broke news” to a largely disaffected younger audience precisely because that audience wasn’t paying attention to the news of the day. This audience was shocked to learn how our leaders behave. Stewart filled in nicely as a foil for right-wing pundits. He was social-media snarky. He was the right man in the right place.
Can we learn anything from him?
Be contextual: The bread and butter of The Daily Show can be found in video clips of politicians and others behaving like idiots. That isn’t rocket science. (It also isn’t always fair; sometimes things are taken out of context so that fun can be poked. Leave that to the comedians.) Stewart’s staff uses Lexus/Nexus to search for video of whomever he wishes to skewer. As you can imagine, video exists of Donald Trump saying damn near anything. The point is, Stewart puts the news of the day in context with what newsmakers said in the past. That is an important lesson for all of us, regardless of medium. Use your archives. Hold newsmakers accountable. …
Be courageous: If you compare Stewart’s rants to your own editorials, do your words feel a little mealy in your mouth? I confess that is sometimes true for me. That’s because I’m scared to rock the boat sometimes. Stewart isn’t. Have you seen how he treats Arby’s? He has demeaned that brand for years. (“Arby’s: Because sometimes you want to challenge your stomach to a fight.”) Did you notice that Arby’s swallowed its pride this week and purchased commercial time on The Daily Show this week? It’s a little bit genius and shows that savvy advertisers buy audience not fawning editorial content.
Outrage is your friend: Newsmen and women should have a finely tuned sense of outrage. That is because the world is so damned outrageous. Stewart never let 30 minutes go by without flying off the handle about something. His larger-than-life reactions to small-minded people set him apart from real journalists, in a good way. His audience clearly responded to his outrage. Yours might as well.
Be less full of yourself: Stewart is famously self-deprecating. If he’s laughing on the show – and he laughs a lot on the show – he is probably laughing at his own folly. In that regard, he stands alone on American television. It’s why we can relate to him. As viewers, we know we’re not the brightest tools in the shed either and it feels good to spend some time with a guy who admits he’s just a guy like us. You won’t see Geraldo Rivera doing that. Don’t take this Fourth Estate thing so damn seriously. Have fun and your audience just might as well.
I’m gonna miss Jon Stewart. A lot.