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Jon Stewart – Hail and Farewell

I like to laugh. And I am a news junkie.

If I were not a news junkie, I would watch one 22-minute news show. But since I am a news junkie, I watch four 22-minute daily digests: the CBS Evening News, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report (now replaced by The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore), and @midnight. Yes, three of my four daily “essential” accountings of the day appear on Comedy Central. That’s how I do my news.

Oh sure, I also watch, in decreasing order of importance, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC World, and Israel’s Channel 10. Every week I make sure to watch Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. On my smartphone, I follow a carefully edited Twitter feed of journalists and pundits from around the world. I also routinely read – or more precisely, scan – the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star & Tribune, Haaretz, Ynet, and the Forward, every day.

Like I said, I am a news junkie.

But if I had to go cold turkey from this mind-addling addiction to news and infotainment, and was granted only one bloc of 22 minutes to allow the world’s events to intrude on my little universe, it would be The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I’ve been watching The Daily Show for 18 years, starting with Craig Kilborn (who inaugurated the sign-off: “And now…your moment of Zen”). I craved something like That Was The Week That Was (TW3), the wonderful live British import that ran for 16 months Friday nights on NBC beginning in early 1964, ridiculing the news in fine satirical fashion. Thankfully, back in 1975, there suddenly appeared Lorne Michael’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) and its Weekend Update.

For a college student looking for a wry angle on an increasingly confusing and dangerous world, SNL was a gift from God. Two decades later, in The Daily Show I had found something akin to TW3 and SNL, but on a daily basis, and I was immediately hooked.

But what was missing from all of these weekly send-ups of the news was a Jewish comedic voice. I knew that many of the great Jewish comedians who had perfected their craft in New York City and the Catskills often used politics and the news in their routines, but very few of them were accessible to me. There was the legendary Lenny Bruce and there was Mort Sahl, who would come on The Ed Sullivan Show with a copy of the day’s New York Times and go through a stream of consciousness tirade against Republicans and Democrats. But their occasional appearances on the box were delicious scraps in a sea of bland broadcast comedy.

I immediately became devoted to The Daily Show with Kilborn. He was a fellow Minnesotan, and before the word “snark” had been invented he brought a biting take on the day’s events, and as an added bonus brought on the topical Jewish comedian Lewis Black as a weekly regular. (Black still does infrequent screeds for Stewart’s version of the show.)

The Daily Show took an immediate turn with Jon Stewart’s arrival. Stewart was a young, hip, loudly Jewish stand-up artist, and had been rumored to be in the running for one of the big networks’ late night spots. He even played off those rumors, and the late night “war” between David Letterman (a gentile from Indiana) and Johnny Carson (a gentile from Iowa and Nebraska), by appearing regularly as himself on The Larry Sanders Show, Gary Shandling’s brilliant send-up of the insipid late night industry.

From the get-go, and even before he took over from Kilborn, I sensed that “Jewishness” would be part of Stewart’s imprint on the show. Two nights before his sign-off, Kilborn had Stewart on as a guest. “What will you change?” asked the Minnesotan. Answered the kid from New Jersey, pointing to a bank of television monitors, “I’d change that to a menorah.” He’d dropped his first J-bomb before he even sat in the anchor’s chair.

The J-bombs, along with the F-bombs, were a signature part of Stewart’s on-air persona. He was unapologetic – not a religious Jew, not a reflexively pro-Israel Jew, not a defender of the Jews – he was just a Jew. Another neurotic, incisive Jewish comedian who utilized his heritage for shticks and stones, to skewer the right and the left, and the industry of cable news bloviage that it had spawned. Sometimes, when Stewart would turn to camera three as if to talk privately to a certain demographic, he would begin by saying “mishpoche.”

Some Jews found it distasteful.

Some found it emancipating. I found it familiar. And I will miss it.

The second week of February was a particularly bad one for American journalism. Brian Williams fell off his perch, Bob Simon died in a car crash, New York Times media critic David Carr collapsed in the newsroom, dead in an instant, and Jon Stewart announced he was ending his run on The Daily Show (mercifully) sometime later this year.

There will continue to be The Daily Show, and I will continue to watch it. But unless the network hacks at Comedy Central can pull another brilliant Jewish comedian out of their hat, it will be The Daily Show without mishpoche – and for that I will mourn.


– Ronald C. Kiener


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