Jon Stewart: Comedian and Moralist

At 11:00 p.m. last night, I tuned in to Comedy Central, and there was Jon Stewart. But, of course, it was a re-run. I know I’m not alone when I say that I have a real sadness—a clear and definite feeling of loss—about Stewart’s departure. For me, it’s similar to the retirement of a colleague at work with whom I chatted every day for decade, or a good friend—we shoveled eachother’s driveways for 20 years—moving out of the neighborhood. Each had been a constant in my life. The world now seems emptier for their leaving.

I was impressed by the goodbyes and comments leading up to Stewart’s departure over the last couple weeks. NPR played interviews with him on Fresh Air; MSNBC featured him in an hour long program; the network nightly news devoted segments to him; and, Charlie Rose spent most of his program one night lauding his role in making the world more honest and transparent. For me, however, one description seems to be missing from the comments about Stewart: Moralist. Yes, he was consistently funny; yes, he was a splendid satirist; yes, he gorgeously lampooned many emperors with no clothes; but, much more importantly, he brought a sense of ethics and morality in the consideration of politics, world events, and the media.

A tradition of righteous indignation

Stewart applied the standards of integrity, openness, fair-mindedness, and compassion to the likes of Fox, the tea party, CNN, and even President Obama. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, compared Stewart’s moral diatribes against Fox News to A.J. Liebling’s attacks on media barons like William Randolph Hearst and Colonel Robert R. McCormick. The similarity of Fox News and the yellow journalism of the early 1900s had not occurred to me. But, when I think about it, Stewart is part of a great tradition of men who speak with conscience. Imagine him in the days of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when moralists crisscrossed the country, railing against corruption, greed, bigotry, sexism, and gay-bashing. Envision him at the lectern of a church calling out, with righteous indignation, our faults and foibles.

As a therapist and advocate for the creation of more accountable, compassionate, and egalitarian men, I admit that Stewart didn’t address the huge issues of men and masculinity head-on. My guess is that he is highly favorably disposed to our ideas about men, and he gets it that men are much of the problem. I suspect he realized that taking on the issue we define as mascupathy would undermine his other messages. And, I can forgive him that choice, especially because he was so quick to point out the incessant silliness of hyper-masculine men, and vast carelessness of the hierarchy of a male-dominated society that treated women, minorities, and LGBT folks as lesser human beings. He certainly lauded gender equality, and he stood strongly for equal rights.

On TV, impression is what counts. And, Stewart is technically a showman, a comedian. But, whereas some newscasters and pundits pretend to care, Stewart was different. He was real. Watching him, I could sense his indignation, exasperation, outrage, and sadness. His grimaces, scowls, smirks, and pouts; his posturing, hands thrown up in the air, palm to his forehead, were certainly for the camera, but it was obvious to me – and I’m certain to many others – that they came from his heart. He’ll be missed.

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