Where to begin with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show? From a personal perspective, I remember the time before his tenure as host of The Daily Show, and it was a very different time. Yes, there was political satire, but it fell primarily into one of two varieties:
Toothless: Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, etc.
Cancelled: The Smothers Brothers, Dick Cavett, etc.
The one semi-exception was David Letterman, who over the years became more outspoken when calling out BS simply because his stature combined with his I-don’t-really-need-this-job-anymore attitude gave him latitude that few others had. But his was a variety show, and the political commentary was intermittent and brief.
For you youngsters who have always had The Daily Show around, it might be hard to imagine, but back in those days politicians were essentially untouchable, and were allowed to spout their BS without much of a challenge, except by their opponents who, by virtue of also being politicians, knew better than to lift the curtain and show the backstage tomfoolery involved in staging political theater.
If someone or something got too far out of hand, the ‘serious’ journalists would jump in (e.g. Woodward and Bernstein, 60 Minutes, etc.) and break the story, but the day-to-day flow of baloney went relatively unexamined by the average American.
But then along came Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. When Stewart took over as host he transformed the show into something that had never quite existed previously – a show dedicated to politics and humor, with a primary focus on clearly pointing out the enormous truckloads of BS that are the main ingredient in US (and global) politics.
Not only did the show x-ray politics, but it was also activist when it needed to be, such as when Stewart lobbied heavily for benefits for the 9/11 first-responders on the eve of a critical Congressional vote, and very likely changed the outcome of that vote through his actions. Stewart also acted to improve, every so slightly, the level of political discourse, such as when he went on CNN’s Crossfire, eviscerated the hosts over their ridiculous political-jousting theater, and then kept the heat on until the show faded into cancellation a few months later, with the head of CNN directly called out Jon’s criticisms as a factor.
But he was always self-deprecating, and quick to mock grandiose claims about the impact of his show. I think this was partly due to natural modesty, but also partly due to the fact that The Daily Show could only do what it did if it was ever the underdog. If he and the show had become full of their own power and began wielding it un-ironically they would have lost their edge.
Personally, I was familiar with Jon prior to The Daily Show primarily from his recurring appearances on The Larry Sanders Show, where he played a slightly fictionalized version of himself who was