Mad as Hell: How a Generation Came of Age While Listening to Jon Stewart

For as long as I can remember, the "Daily Show" host has been on television, being angry at something.

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Aug 6 2015, 3:17pm

When you think about it, you can't remember when you started watching. The show has always just sorta been there, reliably, a 7 PM rerun of the last night's episode, then the new one at 11 PM, that familiar pop-punk riff, the set that looks oddly space-aged and cheap at the same time—it's just part of the furniture of your adolescence. Older people probably had the same sort of relationship with Carson or Letterman or the new issue of Mad falling through the mail slot every couple weeks, a piece of culture that seems both universal and delivered just to you, a way of understanding the world and laughing at it that gets grafted onto your personality without your noticing or minding.

For as long as I can remember, Jon Stewart has been on television, being angry at something.

His isn't anger of the vengeful, daddish variety peddled by Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the radio talk-show crowd, the complaining about the way the world is going, the joking that turns into exasperation that's always threatening to turn into sputtering rage. He's angry the way usually only people in Aaron Sorkin scripts are angry—a smart, slightly self-mocking righteousness that is deadly serious about making jokes.

For a lot of people, Stewart said what they thought, only he made it sound funnier and smarter and easier to agree with than they ever could.

You can find traces of that anger in the quivering "You weren't elected" joke Stewart made after Bush won the 2000 election with an assist from a 5–4 Supreme Court decision. But as Brian Unger, a Daily Show staffer from the old Craig Kilborn era, wrote in Slate this week, the program undeniably got more serious after 9/11. One of the show's most famous moments is the tearful, halting monologue Stewart delivered to open the first episode to air after the planes hit the towers. A sample:

The show in general... is a privilege. Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks... but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that, that it is a country that allows for open satire. And I know that sounds basic, and it sounds as though it goes without saying, but that's really what this whole situation is about: It's the difference between closed and open, it's the difference between free and burdened. And we don't take that for granted here by any stretch of the imagination—and our show has changed, I don't doubt that. What it's become, I don't know.

What the show became is kind of exhausting to contemplate. Every day, a politician said something stupid or introduced some terrible bill that turns poor children into food for rich children; every day, Fox News conjured up guests who say that Barack Obama is a Muslim or that people complaining about police brutality should just shut up. Every day, people who have power were revealed to be wrong, or craven, or flat-out making shit up, and every day, Stewart and The Daily Show made fun of them. He did that for 16 years, four nights a week. That requires not only an ever-replenishing source of writers and correspondents, but also an endless supply of earnestness that allowed Stewart to get upset—or perform the act of getting upset—at each new indignity, every single disingenuous talking point and salvo in the never-ending media wars.

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The Daily Show, under Jon Stewart, spent a decade and a half laboriously explaining how we were fucked and who was fucking us. It was empowering the way having a high-school teacher take your opinions seriously is empowering. Someone was explaining the news to you, and you got it for the first time; you got why it was so important.

He's angry the way usually only people in Aaron Sorkin scripts are angry—a smart, slightly self-mocking righteousness that is deadly serious about making jokes.

It's easy to dig into this outrage-based mockery if you're a certain kind of person—well-educated, a follower of the news, probably left-leaning, young, and convinced that things could be better. The kind of person who was on the cusp of adulthood when 9/11 hit and who remembers clearly the things that followed it, the sudden surge of security at airports and sports stadiums, the serious men in charge who said we were going to war, the crowds and crowds of protesters who didn't want the war—and we remember too that the crowds were right, that the war was a bad idea or at least poorly planned and in any case fucked, and the men in charge were at worst war criminals and at best just lousy at their jobs but either way still, somehow, in charge.

You had to laugh at all that, even if it was a kind of bitter laugh that you didn't know what to do with, and the Daily Show let you laugh that way. More than that, though, being a Daily Show fan meant affiliating yourself with a tribe of angry dreamers who would one day defeat the Fox News tribe and the cynical fucks of the Republican Party and create an America that you could be proud of. Facebooking a video of Stewart "taking down" or "destroying" Sarah Palin or Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck was a kind of shorthand that let everyone know:

I'd never vote Republican, but I don't like the Democrats much either. I care about equality; I care about the horrible things that the government and corporations are doing to the middle-class and poor people in this country. I'm pro-choice and anti-homophobia. I know that the media lies to us; I know 95 percent of what we're fed is bullshit. I voted for Obama, but I wish he had done a better job. I also probably own some funny T-shirts. Fuck Bush, fuck the war, fuck the Patriot Act, fuck the war on drugs—and I'll say as much on a funny T-shirt.

For a lot of people, Stewart said what they thought, only he made it sound funnier and smarter and easier to agree with than they ever could. He was a voice of a generation who told them what they already knew. (Never mind that he's a Gen X-er largely speaking to millennials, a dude so 90s he wore jeans and a leather jacket on his short-lived MTV talk show.)

He was so universally beloved that the New York Times ran a 2008 profile asking if he were the most trusted man in America; the paper later compared him to legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow after The Daily Show helped convince Congress to fund the health care of 9/11 first responders. He was seen as such a good guy that he went on Crossfire in 2004 just to shit all over the show and was praised by his fans for sparking a conversation that turned everyone involved into a defensive dick.

In 2010, at what was probably the height of his popularity, he held something called the Rally to Restore Sanity, which was supposed to be a parody of that year's Glenn Beck–hosted rally—but by then, his claims of being "just a comedian" were wearing thin. You don't bring tens of thousands of people to the middle of Washington, DC, as a goof. At that point you have a movement on your hands, a bunch of people waiting for you to tell them what to do to make it better.

I was one of those people, it's almost embarrassing to admit. I was down there in DC with the rest of them—it was about a year after I graduated college and my job sucked and my apartment sucked and the economy sucked and the debate about health care was just a howling dogpile of bad information, so why not just throw myself into a crowd? All I remember was being too far away from the stage to make out what was going on, and that I got separated from my friends and there were so many people around that my cell network crapped out from overuse. So I rode back to New York on those buses provided by Arianna Huffington—for whatever reason—and that was it. But what did I expect?

It wasn't his fault that his blend of outrage and hope found such an audience, or that cable news was so bad and dishonest that he never ran out of material.

Jon Stewart could explain to you what you should be angry at and why, and he was so good at this, the blending of outrage and hope and charm, that you could almost fool yourself into thinking righteousness was enough, that your personal cocktail of outrage and hope would blossom, magically, into a new world order. Your feeling that way was not his fault, just as it wasn't his fault that his blend of outrage and hope found such an audience, or that cable news was so bad and dishonest that he never ran out of material.

If he didn't tell his audience who to trust and how to get them elected, if he didn't personally create a viable political movement—well, he was just a comedian, as he kept telling anyone who would listen. And if, in the process of being a comedian, he really did turn into the most trusted man in news, the person we turned to for sanity in moments of national madness like the Charleston church shooting, that might say more about our lack of heroes than the legacy of a single cable TV host.

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