christine~ (eppylover) wrote,

Shabbat Shmooze ~ Moment Magazine features Jon Stewart!

November/December 2008

Stewart SpreadMeet Jonathan Stuart Liebowitz (aka) Jon Stewart

The wildly zeitgeisty Daily Show host

By Jeremy Gillick and Nonna Gorilovskaya

On January 11, 1999, a nervous 37-year-old comedian who could have passed for a college student settled into a host’s chair that was too high, wearing a gray suit that looked too large. “Honestly, I feel like this is my bar mitzvah,” he told actor Michael J. Fox, the guest sitting opposite him. “I’ve never worn something like this, and I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”

The rookie was Jon Stewart, and he was making his debut as the anchorman of Comedy Central’s two-year-old The Daily Show. It was not his dream job: That one had gone to his predecessor Craig Kilborn, who had taken his frat-boy act to CBS’ Late Late Show—one of several gigs for which Stewart had been passed over.

Stewart then proceeded to dole out The Daily Show’s usual sophomoric fare: That night, it was the engagement announcement of cartoon characters Popeye and Olive Oyl (complete with mandatory wedding night joke). The show’s celebrity correspondent filed an interview with the aging actors who played munchkins in The Wizard of Oz—“dwarf porn” and “dwarf tossing” were among the topics. But even on day one, the best part of the show was Stewart’s commentary on the headlines, then consumed by President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. “The important issue facing the U.S. Senate is how can it take a pointless, tawdry trial whose outcome has already been decided and make it last for six hilarious, humiliating months,” he intoned.

During the following year, the show morphed into something altogether more edgy, showcasing Stewart’s knack for thoughtful political satire. Although the program hasn’t cast off all silliness and vulgarity, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart now wields a political influence far beyond its audience of nearly two million. Monday through Thursday, on a glitzy news set in New York City, the now graying anchorman—aided by a stable of faux correspondents wearing expressions of gravitas—spoofs politicians and America’s 24-hour media culture. The method behind the madness? What Stewart, also the executive producer, and his writers call “fake news:” a humorous take on real events in a format that resembles “straight” news programs.

Throughout it all, a good-natured, ironic wit cloaks Stewart’s anger. His acerbic jibes at the administration of President George W. Bush, particularly over the war in Iraq (The Daily Show’s “coverage” of the war is called “Mess O’Potamia”), and the media’s failure to perform its watchdog function, has resonated with a politically exhausted nation. New viewers have flocked to Comedy Central to watch Stewart openly question the war and confront hypocrisy, arrogance and stupidity across the board.

The Daily Show’s audience is one of television’s youngest—only 23 percent of viewers are 50 or older—and one of the best informed—even more so than viewers of CNN, C-SPAN and Fox, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center study. As a result, politicians, A-list actors, public intellectuals and pretty much anyone pitching a book, regardless of ideological persuasion, compete for spots on the nightly interview segment. The well-read Stewart has talked globalization and religion with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, over tea and Twinkies, questioned then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne, regally swept in when her memoir came out, presenting Stewart with a Darth Vader statue and explaining that it was “an old family heirloom.” (Dick Cheney is known as “Darth Cheney” on the show.) Actress Angelina Jolie has appeared, as have Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. Senator Hillary Clinton (whom The Daily Show has called “the first viable presidential candidate with a working uterus”) scheduled one of her visits via satellite from Texas on the eve of the crucial 2008 Texas and Ohio primaries.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart enjoys effusive critical and popular acclaim and has won 11 Emmy Awards. At 45, the once obscure Comedy Central comedian has become a media heavyweight. Last year, a Pew survey found Stewart to be one of the most admired journalists in America, tied at number four with news legends Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. This year, Forbes listed him as one of the world’s most powerful celebrities, with an annual income pegged at $14 million, and The New York Times asked: “Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?”

As his star has risen, Stewart, born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, has also become an ambassador of Jewishness. Dispensing Jewish humor like a tic, Stewart’s impish grin, self-deprecating punch lines and jokey cultural references are a staple of the show. He has referred to himself as “Jewey Von Jewstein” and cracked wise on Jewish noses, circumcision, anti-Semites, Jews who play baseball (a short list), Israel as “Heebie Land” and his grandma at Passover. When it comes to Jewish and Israeli politics, he stomps where WASPier comedians fear to tread. But although he regularly brings up the fact that he is Jewish, he rarely speaks earnestly about his Jewish upbringing or what being Jewish means to him.

In 1960, Don and Marian Leibowitz moved to New Jersey from New York City so that Don, a physicist, could be closer to his workplace at RCA Labs in Princeton. They settled in Lawrenceville, just down Route 206 from Princeton. The couple had two boys—Larry (who attended Princeton University and now, as group executive vice president of the New York Stock Exchange’s Euronext, is a big player on Wall Street) and Jon, two years Larry’s junior, born in a New York City hospital on November 28, 1962.

The Leibowitzes were a typical well-educated middle class Jewish family of the time. Marian, a teacher turned creative educational consultant, was the daughter of Nathan Laskin, a struggling immigrant who owned a series of small businesses in New York. Laskin came to the United States from Tianjin, China, where his family was in the fur business. Don’s father was a cab driver in New York City and his grandfather owned a shoe store on Irvington Street on the Lower East Side. “My father’s father was very religious, Orthodox, perhaps to an extreme,” recalls Don Leibowitz, now an adjunct professor of physics and liberal learning at The College of New Jersey, where he is the faculty advisor to the Secular Student Alliance. “When we visited his store, he would pinch my cheek and make me recite prayers.”

Lawrenceville wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Jewish life. Jon attended a yeshiva kindergarten in nearby Trenton, then joined his brother at the local public school. Stewart has recalled being punched in seventh grade and taunted as “Leibotits” and “Leiboshits.” “I didn’t grow up in Warsaw, but it’s not like it wasn’t duly noted by my peers that’s who I was—there were some minor slurs,” he said in a 2002 interview with The New Yorker’s Tad Friend.

Stewart’s comedic streak and verbal agility was evident at an early age. “I was very little, so being funny helped me have big friends,” Stewart explained in a 1994 People interview. “Jon is most like my father,” Marian Leibowitz told the Trenton Times in 2006. “[My father] was very funny and, when he was young, he made extra money entertaining in nightclubs in China.” Stewart and Nathan Laskin were especially close.

The family attended high holiday services at the Princeton Jewish Center, affiliated with the Conservative movement. While Larry’s bar mitzvah was held at an upscale hotel in Somerville, Jon’s was not. When he was 11, family circumstances had changed: Don Leibowitz moved out of the family home. “We had separated and the bar mitzvah, to keep the costs down, was at the Jewish Center,” says Leibowitz, who is remarried and has two sons from his second marriage. He and Stewart are estranged.

At Lawrence High School, Stewart played on the varsity soccer team and gained a reputation as a funny guy. Not everyone on the staff appreciated his humor, but Selma Litowitz, his Jewish English teacher, who died in 2005, got it. “He has said that she was the first who recognized that his humor was something that he could make a living at,” says Debra Frank, the teacher’s daughter. The Litowitzes lived on the same street—Glenn Avenue—as the Leibowitzes. In 2001, Stewart came back to his high school to emcee a benefit concert in Selma Litowitz’s honor to raise funds for Parkinson’s disease research. “His opening joke,” says Frank, “was that, for many years, he thought that Jews had to live alphabetically.”

By high school, Stewart was already conversant in politics. He has recalled that he was “left-leaning” and “very into Eugene Debs,” the perennial Socialist Party candidate for U.S. president in the early 20th century. For a mock debate, Stewart was assigned to play another presidential candidate whose politics were light years away from those of Debs’: Ronald Reagan. “I had to defend increased military spending,” Stewart told George magazine in 2000.

Stewart graduated in 1980, reportedly third in his class, and was voted “best sense of humor.” “He was very funny, not funny in the sense that he would tell funny stories, more quick, witty,” says Larry Nichol, Stewart’s 12th grade English teacher. “He’d always be saying something on the way out the door as the bell was ringing.”

“I came to William and Mary because as a Jewish person, I wanted to explore the rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia,” Jon Stewart joked as he accepted an honorary doctorate at the College of William and Mary’s 2003 graduation ceremony, wearing a gray sweatshirt beneath his academic robe. “Imagine my surprise when I realized ‘The Tribe’ was not what I thought it meant.”

“The Tribe” refers to the school’s athletic teams, and that Tribe indeed drew Stewart to this historic southern school, not an altogether obvious choice for a Jewish kid from New Jersey. In the 1980s, North-South tensions could still be felt on this conservative campus, which boasted traditions such as the Yule Log Ceremony, where the president dons a Santa outfit and reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the student body.

Stewart hoped to play professional soccer and joined the school team. “Jon was very feisty as a player, very high-energy sort of guy,” says Al Albert, the coach at the time, who is also Jewish. “He played out wide. He worked very hard.” After a stint on junior varsity his freshman year, Stewart moved up to varsity, playing midfield.

As in high school, Stewart was acknowledged as a funny man, although no one imagined that his future held a career in comedy. “He was always the locker room cut-up, but we’ve had other locker room cut-ups who haven’t gone on to be comedians,” Albert says.

Between traveling for matches and a rigorous academic load, there wasn’t much time for soccer players to get into trouble. Beers at local delis, MTV, video games and occasional concerts provided their primary entertainment. “Jon was very popular with girls and dated some very attractive women in college,” recalls John Rasnic, Stewart’s college roommate and soccer teammate.

Rasnic remembers at least one incident in which Stewart bumped up against anti-Semitism. During a game against Randolph-Macon College, a liberal arts school in Virginia, Stewart was called a kike. “Jon was a little upset, I think, perhaps a bit surprised, but he didn’t let it bother him,” Rasnic says.

In 1983, Albert recruited Stewart for the Pan American Maccabi Games in São Paulo, Brazil, a lead-up to the World Maccabiah Games, the Jewish version of the Olympics. Stewart started for the U.S. team and, as usual, established himself as the locker room joker. “He created a little bit of levity,” says David Coonin, one of Stewart’s Maccabi teammates, “but everybody was always a little afraid of messing with Jon because he was so quick-witted.”

The 10-day trip included a Shabbat dinner, parties, Brazilian and Israeli dancing and skeptical Latin American Jews. “When we walked out on the soccer field, they called us ‘gringos,’” says Fred Schoenfeld, co-chair of the Pan American Games that year. “They wanted to know if we knew how to play.” The U.S. team proved itself by winning four games, losing only to Brazil in the finals. “After that, they no longer called us gringos.”

On the surface, Stewart seems to have been well integrated into college life. But, as an adult, he would describe his William and Mary days as “miserable” and himself as “a lost person.” Stewart pledged to a fraternity but dropped out, reportedly over objections to the hazing. Having started as a chemistry major, he switched to psychology after two years. “Apparently there’s a right and wrong answer in chemistry; whereas in psychology, you can say whatever you want as long you write five pages,” Stewart quipped to 60 Minutes in 2001.

Another source of frustration was Reagan’s election during Stewart’s freshman year. “We always talked politics,” says Mike Flood, who played soccer with Stewart. “Neither of us was a particularly strong Reagan fan.”

Stewart scored 10 goals for William and Mary, but his hopes for a pro soccer career were dashed by injuries. “Toward the end of his career, he blew out his knee,” says his father. Still, Stewart’s legacy on The Tribe soccer team lives on in the form of the Leibo award, given annually in recognition of good humor and hard work.

After graduating from William and Mary in 1984, Stewart returned to New Jersey and kicked around at a number of odd jobs. He worked as a bartender at Lawrenceville’s Franklin Corner Tavern, sorted live mosquitoes for the New Jersey Department of Health and was a puppeteer for special needs schoolchildren. In 1986, he sold his car and moved to New York to try stand-up comedy.

“When he finally decided to become a comedian, it was a little bit of a shock,” Marian Leibowitz said in her Trenton Times interview. “But he was going to New York. He wasn’t going to China. I decided I wasn’t going to be the person to discourage him.”

In 1987, the young comedian known as Jon Leibowitz scored a gig at the Bitter End in the West Village—a comedy club where his idol, Woody Allen, had once performed. As he was being introduced, the emcee mangled the pronunciation of his name, prompting him to rename himself then and there, he told The New Yorker. But he also hinted at other reasons, such as “some leftover resentment at my family,” presumably referring to his strained relationship with his father.

The pronunciation of his name was not the only thing to go awry that first night at the Bitter End. Stewart made it only half-way through his act. “Legend has it that Jon bombed,” says Wendy Wall, who had booked him at the club. “But I really wouldn’t say he ‘bombed.’ It was one in the morning. It’s not easy with a crowd like that. It was obvious to me that he was funny.” Wall invited him back for a second night.

After becoming a regular at New York’s Comedy Cellar, he broke into television with an uncredited TV writing gig on Caroline’s Comedy Hour on the A&E network and in 1992 landed a spot as the host of MTV’s You Wrote It, You Watch It. Along the way he picked up a powerful fan, David Letterman, and became a frequent guest on Letterman’s Late Night on NBC, often sporting a tough-guy leather jacket. When Letterman decamped to CBS, Stewart was a contender to replace him as Late Night host but lost out to Conan O’Brien. Still, MTV liked him, and in 1993 tapped him to host his own talk show, The Jon Stewart Show, which quickly became the second-highest rated program on the network. The show lasted two seasons.

Stewart’s career slowly rolled on. He starred in Jon Stewart: Unleavened for HBO in 1996 and went on to score what are generally considered to have been mediocre guest-star appearances on sitcoms including Newsradio, Spin City and The Nanny, as well as roles in big-screen comedies like Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy. He was more successful playing “himself”—a young comic who is brought in to replace an older mentor—on the pseudo-realistic The Larry Sanders Show. In one episode, Stewart flouts the censors and airs a skit featuring a character dressed up as Hitler. The inspiration came from a rehearsal sketch for Stewart’s earlier talk show, in which Hitler tries to soften his image. “I don’t know what I was afraid of. These are delicious!” comedian Dave Attell’s Hitler proclaims after biting into a bagel.

Stewart’s studio audience had booed and the skit was shelved, but it later turned into a hilarious bit of back-story and the basis for an essay, “Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview,” in Stewart’s 1998 book, Naked Pictures of Famous People. In it, the former fuhrer accepts the blame for his past actions and psychoanalyzes why his plan for world domination failed. “What do I do? I deport or kill all my best scientists.... The Jews were some of my best technical people. It’s classic fear of success,” “Hitler” reasons.

By 1998, Stewart had done standup. He’d done movies. He’d done TV. He’d published a best-selling book. He’d had—and lost—a show. But he had never really found his niche until, at age 37, he replaced Kilborn on The Daily Show in 1999. After a slightly bumpy beginning, Stewart began to lead the show away from its celebrity focus. He came into his own with the show’s arch and sardonic coverage of the presidential election grandiosely labeled “Indecision 2000.”

The show quickly drew the eyeballs of political junkies and earned a Peabody award, one of broadcast media’s highest honors. “It was in the year 2000 that Jon Stewart officially became a public intellectual,” says Robert Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Then came September 11, 2001. When Stewart came back on the air nine days later, he opened with a somber, halting speech that addressed the sudden absurdity of his jester role as well as its importance. “They said to get back to work, and there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position,” he said. “We sit in the back and we throw spitballs—never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that.” Stewart choked up, tears in his eyes, and turned to the significance of carrying on:

“The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

It was a long way from the Bitter End. It was, actually, a beginning: the unwitting kickoff of Jon Stewart as trusted national figure. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the show became a place where viewers came not just to laugh but to be informed. The guest list grew weightier, expanding to include the Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan, the late David Halberstam and newsmen Bill Moyers and Ted Koppel. “When all the news guys were walking on eggshells, Jon was hammering those questions about WMDs,” recalls Thompson. “That’s the kind of thing CNN and CBS should have been doing.”

The Daily Show continues to blend the fake anchor shtick with fake news skits, “reported” by zany correspondents such as Samantha Bee, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Rob Riggle and John Oliver. Where once Stewart could be as clownish as his reporters, he now plays calm. He still curses and goofs around, but he never strays far from being the trusted voice of authority.

It’s impossible to watch The Daily Show without quickly divining that Stewart is Jewish. “Stewart brings a sharpness of wit and a clear desire to never let the audience forget who he is by bringing his Jewishness up again and again,” observes Moshe Waldoks, a rabbi in Brookline, Massachusetts, and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. His cultural Jewishness, that is; Stewart regularly hosts The Daily Show on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. (A New York Mets fan, Stewart did name one of his pit bulls Shamsky, after Art Shamsky, a Mets player who declined to play on Yom Kippur.)

Well-versed in Jewish affairs, he is the first to admit that his knowledge of the religion doesn’t run deep. “I’m not a religious scholar,” Stewart conceded to viewers in 2001. “Let’s face facts: Very few people would confuse me with Maimonides.” He gently pokes fun at his own lack of observance. “I fasted today, not out of any religious duty but because I don’t want to let a day go by where I can’t feel worse about myself. So Happy Yom Kippur to you!” Stewart wished his audience in 2003.

Nevertheless, his satire reverberates with a Jewish sensibility. “We have a long tradition of important Jewish comedians, all dealing with social and political issues,” says Arthur Asa Berger, a professor of communications at San Francisco State University and author of the book Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire, about the comic strip by the famed humorist Al Capp (his given name was Alfred Gerald Caplin). Stewart’s lampooning of America’s political and media elites also has Jewish roots. “I think that there is such a thing as a Jewish psyche, a sense of the prophetic tradition, of speaking truth to power,” says Waldoks.

Stewart himself counts Woody Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg) and Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Alfred Schneider) as well as George Carlin and Richard Pryor among his influences. It’s worth noting that Seinfeld, the show Stewart holds up as the gold standard for his own, has often been called the world’s most famous Jewish comedy in which the word Jew was rarely heard. While Stewart is far more open about his Jewishness than Jerry Seinfeld, his humor is not as centered around it as, for example, Sarah Silverman’s, who styles herself as a Jewish American princess.

Nor is he angrily anti-religion like Bill Maher, the half-Jewish, half-Catholic agnostic who recently brought America the film Religulous and who mercilessly attacks religion on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. “I don’t have a problem with religion,” Stewart once explained to Larry King. “I think that religion provides a lot of people with comfort and solace, but you know, I think what people who aren’t that religious object to is [the belief] that the only way to find values is through religion.”

Religious fundamentalism often crops up as a target in Stewart’s comedy. In 1999, soon after he began hosting The Daily Show, ultra-Orthodox protesters heckled a co-ed group of Reform rabbis for praying together at the Western Wall. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews, desperately fearful of biblical cooties, got all Jewier-than-thou when they discovered that a handful of Reform Jews who actually allow their women to do something other than breed and cook also had the chutzpah to be praying nearby,” he said. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe themselves superior to other Jews, claiming the Word was handed to them directly, right before [God] handed us big noses and took away all our athletic ability.”

Like clockwork, Stewart mentions Jewish holidays throughout the year—like the night he joked about the midnight apple drop into a bowl of honey at Times Square on Rosh Hashanah. Another time, on Larry King Live, he said: “Who amongst us hasn’t thought around Hanukkah, ‘Oh, you’re celebrating the birth of your Savior, and we’re celebrating the fact that the oil lasted longer than we thought it would—what value!’”

The show even gets Jews laughing at sacred cows of all sorts. Stewart is not anti-Israel: “I’m a Jewish guy,” he said during a 1996 standup routine. “I’ve been to Israel; I’m really glad it’s there.” But certainly Israel gets its share of Daily Show attention. Take the preface to John Oliver’s 2001 interview with Dan Gillerman, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Oliver, the tongue-in-cheek British correspondent, pointed to the Holocaust, Spanish Inquisition and pogroms as evidence that “Jews seem to have trouble getting along with people, so it was better to get them their own place.” Later, Oliver asked Gillerman to put to rest the “nasty conspiracy theory...that your country is run by Jews.”

After presidential candidates Clinton, McCain and Obama spoke at the 2008 annual Washington conference hosted by AIPAC, Stewart mocked all three for pandering: McCain talked about having traveled to Israel with Joe Lieberman (“You don’t need to bring your own Jew”); Clinton referenced a passage from Isaiah (“She knows a Jew from the Bible!”); and Obama recalled a Jewish-American camp counselor (“That’s one step from ‘Hey, I rented Yentl once!’”). After waiting to hear some “constructive criticism” of Israeli policies that “may not be in the best interest of the world,” Stewart rolled clips of silence and went for the kill: “Oh! I forgot! You can’t say anything remotely critical of Israel and still get elected president! Which is funny, because you know where you can criticize Israel? Israel!”

Although the topic doesn’t come up often, it’s also evident where Stewart stands on intermarriage. In 2000, he married Tracey McShane, a veterinary technician and a Catholic. Stewart, who does The New York Times crossword puzzle daily, popped the question with a puzzle of his own. The paper’s “Puzzle Master,” Will Shortz, found Stewart a puzzle creator for the occasion.

The Stewarts (they changed their names legally in 2001) live in a loft in lower Manhattan and have two children. Nathan Thomas Stewart, four, is named after his grandfather. Maggie Rose Stewart is two. As Stewart told Tony Blair on The Daily Show in a September 2008 interview, “My wife is Catholic. I’m Jewish. It’s very interesting; we’re raising the children to be sad.”

Perhaps more than any other satirist, Stewart commands the attention—and respect—of folks in the “real” media. New Yorker editor David Remnick and PBS’ Moyers consider him an important media critic. The Daily Show’s trademark editing technique of playing back-to-back clips of politicians contradicting themselves has garnered that highest form of flattery: imitation by the very networks Stewart mocks.

Nevertheless, Stewart insists that he and his staff are just a bunch of “monkeys making jokes.” In particular, he dismisses suggestions that The Daily Show aims to do anything more than make people laugh. On October 15, 2004, when he went on CNN’s Crossfire—a then-popular target of The Daily Show because of its screaming matches between pundits—Stewart begged hosts Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor, and Tucker Carlson, the young bow-tied conservative journalist, to “stop hurting America” with their “partisan hackery.” Carlson would have none of it. He pushed back, attacking Stewart for a softball interview with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

An incredulous Stewart responded by reminding Carlson that their shows were not in the same category. “You’re on CNN,” he said. “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” The exchange was a YouTube sensation, and Stewart was tagged the winner; few disagreed with his statement that something is really wrong with the fourth estate if, as he put it, “news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”

“Stewart panders exclusively” to his liberal, young audience, insists Carlson, now at MSNBC: “He’s a show for the Democratic Party. He sucks up to power rather than confront it.” Stewart’s interviewing style has been called into question by his admirers as well. Lately, there have been instances where Stewart has been a more aggressive interviewer, squaring off with McCain and Blair over the Iraq war. But it is unrealistic to expect comedians to carry out the job of newsmen, says Syracuse University’s Thompson. “Jon Stewart is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be, and when he says he’s not we should believe it. His interviews are in the tradition of Johnny Carson. Basically he’s polite, at times deferential. He behaves in the interviews like a well-brought-up young man.”

Stewart denies that The Daily Show has a political agenda. His Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert—whose mock Bill O’Reilly persona on The Daily Show led to a spin-off created by Stewart’s Busboys Productions called The Colbert Report—views Stewart as an equal-opportunity satirist. “Jon is admirably balanced,” Colbert has said, explaining that Stewart always tries to get at the “the true intention of the person speaking, left or right” in order “to be able to honestly mock.”

Stewart makes no secret of his impatience with President Bush, known on the show by the superhero moniker “The Decider” or as “Still President Bush.” Stewart recently told The New York Times that he is looking forward to the end of the Bush era “as a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.” But perhaps out of respect for his comedian-cum-journalist role and unlike other comedians like Silverman, an activist for Democrats, and Jackie Mason, an outspoken Republican, he stays somewhat mum about his own political preferences, although it is clear that he leans Democrat. (The only documented recipient of his financial largesse is New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat and Big Apple mayoral candidate, with whom Stewart roomed after college.)

A Pew study analyzed the show’s content during the summer and fall of 2007 and concluded that “Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush administration alone was the focus of 22 percent of the segments.” Although this percentage is likely to change when a Democratic administration comes to power, Democrats do not escape his tongue-lashing, even if it is to criticize them for not being democratic enough. There is a sort of liberal angst in his characterizations of Democrats as “at best ewoks,” a reference to cuddly, somewhat hapless Star Wars creatures.

In the run-up to the 2004 elections, Stewart indicated that he would vote for John Kerry. Although no one imagines that Stewart cast a vote for McCain, who supports the Iraq war, McCain was a guest on the show 13 times, far more than either Clinton or Obama. Many of McCain’s guest spots were via satellite from his Straight Talk Express bus during low points in his primary campaign, providing him with much needed media exposure. “John McCain is someone for whom I have great respect,” Stewart told Larry King last February.

Despite his effort to be a fair and balanced mocker, Stewart’s reputation as the “most trusted man in America” should be taken with a grain of salt. Such stature is not unusual for a comedian, says Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. “Johnny Carson in his heyday, you could make that statement about.” Lemann warns against generalizing about how far that trust spreads beyond Stewart’s core audience. “I think that’s a kind of a blue-state perspective and youth perspective. To many of my cousins in Louisiana, Rush Limbaugh is the most trusted man in America.”

Left or right, people acknowledge that Stewart is very funny. Part of his appeal may be his Jewishness and the fact that Jews are still perceived as outsiders, says Moshe Waldoks. At the same time, Stewart personifies a trend in which younger American Jews have become more open about being Jewish. “I think like the Jewishness of many people today, Stewart’s Jewishness is not expressed in the synagogue or ritually but in this new place, which is the public square,” adds Waldoks.

In the public square, Stewart may be the perfect Jewish ambassador for our times: smart but not arrogant, extremely funny but not mean—a valedictorian, most popular, best-looking and class clown all wrapped into one.

So, is Jon Stewart, to ask that annoying question, good for the Jews? As Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, puts it, “Are you serious? How could Jon Stewart not be good for the Jews?”


Rachel Sklar contributed to this story.
Additional research by Mark Abramson, Ana Forman, Mindy Gold and Maxine Springer.


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Tags: comedians, shabbat shmooze, tv

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