“I coulda been a contender!” That was the famous cry of Marlon Brando in the 1954 film classic, On The Waterfront. Those words have a bitter poignancy today for the career of Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, as he fights to maintain a respectable place in the ratings despite a dramatic slip into the dustbin of cultural irrelevancy. It’s almost hard to believe that this Jewish comedian was once seen as a crafty innovator whose editorials were regular fodder for serious news programs. In the late 90s, his loud personality and bright graphics heralded a new era of brash political bias and snarky discourse as a counterpoint to the more subdued maturity of the Ted Koppels and Jay Lenos of the day. Many even considered him a contender for David Letterman’s chair.
Ten years on, the great changes that Mr. Stewart introduced to the realm of personality-driven television programs seem old-fashioned and simplistic. Faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert has taken news commentary to new heights of absurdity that Stewart lacks the cunning and wit to achieve. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hemorrhages a liberal bias that the Daily Show host seems too timid to pop. Even old guard liberal icons like Keith Olbermann and Frank Rich have changed their game plan, dumbing down their messages in order to achieve a broader audience share.
Yet instead of keeping up with the times, Jon Stewart has only become more desperate on his weeknight cable program. Many critics find him unfunny today. Others worry about the clear strain of liberal bias that he persistently denies. For a man who has always combined the whiney attitude of Woody Allen, the hollering of Lenny Bruce, the foolishness of Jerry Seinfeld and the narcissism of Ben Stiller, Mr. Stewart never quite mastered a unique identity. Rather, he is the poor man’s potluck of Jewish stereotypes. And like those poorly-planned dinners, his audience arrives each night unsure what to expect. Too much cheese in the sauce of his noodle-brained surprise? A plethora of store-bought packages of stale news? Too many helpings of puffy “offbeat” items, sugary and sweet, but lacking the essentials truths Americans hunger for? Or is it the gritty red wine of his leftwing diatribes that leaves you sick and hungover once the drunken giddiness of pissy self-righteousness wears off?
It is those moments when Stewart leans deep over his desk that are the most worrisome for media critics. He presses his abdomen hard against the edge and clenches whatever is within his reach. It’s as if he’s climbing over decorum and tradition to get his face as close to the camera as possible. The desperation of this pathetic man! He prostrates himself in ways no other newsman would dare, crying out for your love with the countenance of a dentist coming in with a drill and wrinkling those expensively-tailored suits that would be more appropriate for an investment banker. It is a poignant testimony to his failing stardom that he craves your affirmation so profoundly. He pleads with us to pay attention to him like some overbearing mother who has retired to the long-distance compounds of coastal Florida. Sadly, caller ID and the channel clicker spell defeat for guilt trips such as these.
It’s a lack of honesty that doomed Stewart from the start. There is nothing earnest or genuine about him. He is, quite simply, a ham. His interviewing style has been roundly criticized for his fawning embrace of every liberal demagogue who cozies up to his desk, with lieutenants like Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver on the ready to jab him with their needles of narcotic, heavily-accented praise to keep him stumbling onward. The “puppy dog” smirks, the extended silences, the histrionics unworthy of a 12 year-old girl, this is a man who lacks the most basic sense of integrity. He shows heavily edited clips of conservative politicians or Fox News and then has the camera zoom in on his face for moments of surprise or anger that seem so manufactured, they will make normal Americans blush in disbelief. One can’t help but imagine Stewart spending all day in front of his dressing room mirror rehearsing these fake facial expressions with hairdressers and hirsute hangers-on buzzing about in an air that hangs heavy with discount aerosol and the foul odors of day-old deli meat platters.
As he fades into the background, maybe it’s time for Jon Stewart to own up to the damage he has done to modern media. His liberal bigotry has left scars on every journalist in America. The divisiveness and hostility that has overtaken every level of political debate can truly rest at the feet of this waifish 14-million dollar a year man. We have become a nation so full of bitterness and sneaky facetious cunning, so disheartened by broken promises and dishonest politicians, so corrupted by a primal loss of hope in the greatness of America’s Christian founding ideals, will we ever be able to dream again? Please, I ask you Jon Stewart, please let the children of America dream again. Admit the curse that you have placed on this nation, a curse that draws so recklessly on the obscure traditions of your people and that leaves us only with easy mockery and everlasting guilt. Jon, I ask you humbly to admit the damage now if you have any hope of stepping lightly into the fuzzy glow of obscurity with any semblance of the manhood you once dreamt you would possess.