The Daily Show with Jon Stewart "Super Mario Boner"

Another Millennial on Jon Stewart’s Return

As a millennial, I feel obligated to mention that I also have opinions on Jon Stewart’s homecoming episode of The Daily Show.

So here we go:

Now you know.

It’s Complicated

While a politically left, millennial neckbeard who once owned an Indecision 20XX bumpersticker (probably), I’m also an insufferable comedy geek. I framed albums by Steve Martin, Patton Oswalt, and Monty Python and hung them in my den. If someone asks me which comedy musicians I like better between Bo Burnham and Flight of the Conchords, I will push up my glasses and declare, “Tom Lehrer,” while queuing up “National Brotherhood Week.”

So of course I watched The Daily Show, and even include it in my comedy historian wonkery. I even read the books released as tie-ins, such as America: The Book and The Colbert Report‘s I Am America (And So Can You!) I occasionally dig up a recording I’ve saved of their 2000 election recount coverage in which the delayed recount results forced all of the Daily Show staff to play angry, bitter, exhausted versions of themselves. Or, when people assume Kentucky is an anti-LGBTQ state, I pull up The Colbert Report‘s 2013 coverage of Vicco, KY’s first openly gay Mayor, Johnny Cummings with its hilarious-yet-heartbreaking portrait of small-town Appalachia.

So yeah, I was obviously going to watch the episode.

What is The Daily Show?

First and foremost it’s important to understand that The Daily Show is not, and never was, a left-wing alternative to the news; it is (and has always been) a satire of corporate-owned televised news networks. This means that Jon Stewart didn’t explicitly attack the George W. Bush administration as much as he attacked how the mainstream media would uncritically accept their answers at face value. Instead of criticizing Obama’s administration for the trillion dollar bank bailout of 2009, Stewart’s commentary lampooned how ridiculous it was that the narrative focused on how much wall street executives didn’t appreciate it.

Instead of making a political stance, TDS usually points towards the flaws in how television news programs will give uneven weight to issues of differing importance. Or, in other words, spend too much time on trivial bullshit. Similar to the thesis of Bowling for Columbine (until its creator/producer/star pivots to mock a man suffering from dementia), TDS often demonstrated how profit motives forced stations like CNN and Fox to forego journalistic qualities of importance or tactfulness in favor of sensationalist, often fear-mongering, headlines.

On top of that, it illustrates something that has always fascinated me – something I learned growing up when watching late night shows and Monty Python sketches – which is that you can put on a suit and sit behind a fancy desk and receive credibility, whether or not it’s deserved.

Not “The News”

While mocking the news can be important for maintaining a critical audience, it also some issues which TDS also displayed. One problem is that this approach leads to a convenient “motte and bailey” where anytime they are accused of being biased, they simply point to how they aren’t a news show but are satirizing the news. Or instead of admitting that they preferred Obama as a president, they can just point to how they actually covered the bad things he did (even if Obama wasn’t the one being criticized.)

When Stewart appeared on the CNN show that jumpstarted Tucker Carlson’s career, Crossfire, he accused Carlson and co-host Paul Begala as being partisan hacks, claiming their work was “harming America” because they played into politicians’ strategies. When Carlson wanted to bring up an interview Stewart gave with then-presidential nominee John Kerry, Stewart said, “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.” He later joked about giving Kerry a “hot stone massage” and said, “.. maybe this explains quite a bit, is that news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”

Ultimately, I still agree with Stewart’s overall thesis about Crossfire. I also agree with mocking mainstream televised news. What I disagree with is Stewart downplaying his impact at the time. It’s entirely possible he may have been ignorant as to how many people he’d influenced at the time (which is likely, considering how his more popular days were ahead of him.) But as a lefty millennial, I knew how much him and his show had shaped my worldview, as well as my friends and peers. While I understood The Daily Show wasn’t “The News,” I also learned about most current events – throughout Stewart’s tenure – from his coverage and his recurring staff members’ segments.

Layman’s Terms

Aside from comedy, the main appeal of The Daily Show was that, because they were less focused on politics than on how the media portrayed politics, they could dissect complicated issues and turn them into easily explainable, often humorous, quips. Usually this is because mainstream media avoids simplifying issues when it makes them look biased.

For example, look at some of TDS‘ coverage of marriage equality. While news organizations were mired in appearing unbiased, painting both sides as having equally valid arguments, Jon Stewart literally called the segment in which he explains their position “You Got Nothin’.” Believe it or not, this was a controversial opinion at the time, and that’s largely because the media framed it differently.

One study demonstrates how the media did this, primarily by framing the issue as being between two politically divided legal ideologies. In this interpretation, the actual moral issue doesn’t matter because it’s simply a matter of lawyers and judges trying to interpret the various laws which applied to “marriage” and “civil unions.” But in the years since that case happened, public perception has shifted into viewing this as a fight for equality by a marginalized group against bigoted zealots. I’m willing to bet that if you look at any seemingly noncontroversial issue throughout US history, you will find a similar phenomenon. I don’t think mainstream media inherently does this out of malice, either. While there are various reasons (some more debatable than others), I think a large part of it is how media is essentially designed to reflect the public perceptions of the time. They are, in essence, the Overton window.

So if this intention to appear unbiased can be manipulated by people with a political agenda (as conservatives did for gay marriage), then the media has to tiptoe around what – to a lot of people – is painfully obvious. Jon Stewart can then point at this absurd song-and-dance by the supposedly credible, integrity-driven journalists as proof of their political gullibility. It nails a seemingly complicated issue down to media framing, which is actually a fairly complicated thing to identify in an 8-minute segment on a show made five times a week.

Not So Simple

Since leaving TDS, Stewart has applied this method of simplifying complex ideas via mainstream media’s complicity to other issues, such as covering gender misinformation on his Apple TV+ show The Problem with Jon Stewart. The problem is that, sometimes his simplification glosses over things.

For example, he appeared on Colbert’s The Late Show and nonchalantly promoted the COVID-19 “lab-leak” conspiracy during a time when misinformation ran rampant across all networks.:

[Sarcastically] “There’s a novel respiratory Coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China.”

“What do we do??

“Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan Respiratory Coronavirus Lab.”

[Seriously] That’s just a little too weird, don’t you think?

Jon Stewart, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
(video source, timestamped with quote)

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, yes: disease’s are often discovered in a large city, but that doesn’t guarantee they were leaked from a laboratory, or even that they originated from the city where infected people were first found. Virology is a complicated system further compounded by the complex ways human populations interact. As a professor who once worked at that lab puts it:

Lab leak proponents cling to the contention that the presence of a lab that studies viruses and the emergence of a coronavirus pandemic in the same city can’t possibly be coincidentalBut my colleagues and I showed in 2021 that this virus wasn’t going to emerge just anywhere in China: It took a city. Simulations indicate that when a virus with the properties of SARS-CoV-2 jumps into a human in a sparsely populated rural area, it will fail to cause an outbreak 99% of the time. But take that same virus into a huge city like Wuhan, and about a third of animal-to-human transmissions will result in an epidemic.

We should instead be asking: What is the chance that a big Chinese city like Wuhan would have a lab doing the kind of research that has come under suspicion? The answer is, the vast majority of the biggest cities in China have labs involved in such research. If COVID had emerged in, say, Beijing, there would be no fewer than four such labs facing suspicion.

I remain open to any and all evidence supporting a laboratory origin of the pandemic. So far, we have no such evidence.

Michael Worobey, professor and head of the dept of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona
(text source, with link to highlighted quotation; bolding added by me for emphasis)

Not only is it a complicated issue requiring expert knowledge and experience, it was a hot-button issue used to identify certain types of political extremists. Stewart himself even wondered why it should be controversial to mention, explaining that it wasn’t even his point to promote the theory as much as make a joke about scientific curiosity leading to mankind’s folly.

But what I really think about Jon Stewart’s return is something that’s been crammed in the back recesses of my brain and I keep going back to. In fact, the whole reason I wrote this article is because I just wanted to get this out of my system. Essentially, Jon Stewart (and the staff of The Daily Show) misrepresented the reality of video game sales, and I’m not entirely sure why.

This Probably Didn’t Lead to GamerGate but it Also Didn’t Help

When the Mortal Kombat franchise was revived back in 2011, Jon Stewart went on a rant about its violent graphics and how inappropriate that game was for children. Even though he admitted to being a fan of violent video games (once even gushing over Doom‘s BFG with The Rock), he argued that it’s absolutely ridiculous there aren’t laws preventing children from buying these kinds of games.

Since I’d worked three years at a video game store, I immediately recognized several flaws with that argument and, to this day, I’m baffled the segment ever made it to air.

First off, it’s true that there aren’t laws preventing children from buying games. That’s because the government allows the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to police their own retailers. Just like how the MPAA can cause theaters to lose access to film reels for getting caught allowing minors into R-rated movies, the ESRB will fine and eventually stop selling games to stores caught selling M-rated games to kids.

It’s not perfect, and I understand criticisms of allowing industries to regulate themselves (see, for instance, firearm manufacturers or oil refiners.) But I also understand how these laws –if not implemented properly – are more likely to hurt the most marginalized in our society than those with power. No, I’m not talking about children, but retail employees, often making minimum wage, who are not properly trained about a store’s policies.

Is This a Problem?

Working at a game store, I always told people the ratings and checked IDs if they looked under 30. Did I do this out of the kindness of my own heart? Of course not; I was told that if I ever sold a mature rated game to a minor, I’d immediately lose my job. The ESRB hires low-paid “secret shoppers” to go from store to store and send their 16-year-old kid (who’s six-foot-four with a full-blown mustache and crow’s feet) to see if they can catch an employee making a mistake. My manager told one story in which the parent talked with the clerk for ten minutes, seemingly gave approval for the game, but left the store before their son paid, and claimed the employee broke the rules.

Does this mean it never happens? Of course not. But the odds are that it isn’t happening much at a game store (definitely not one of the few mom and pop’s left) but at big-box department stores.

As hypermarkets like Wal-Mart compete with the eldritch horror that is Amazon, lost profits are squeezed from their overworked, underpaid staff, not the shareholders. This means employees selling video games are likely to have missed the training on ESRB ratings. If an employee makes the mistake, is Wal-Mart going to realize their mistake and train this employee, then create better procedures to train the rest of their staff? Of course not: they’re going to fire them (since they unwittingly violated one of the thousand lines of fine print in their contract) and hire someone at the starting wage.

That absolutely sucks, as it is. Now imagine if that employee is also charged with a misdemeanor. That would make finding a job even harder for them, meanwhile the company who failed them gets wash their hands of them. That was, whether he realized it or not, the stance Jon Stewart promoted.

That’s Not the Point

It has been approximately thirteen years since I first saw that segment and, to be fair, I had completely forgotten the story it was covering. After writing the past section, I re-watched it.

As I’ve already established, The Daily Show satirized the news, so it wouldn’t have made sense for them to argue for specific legislature. Instead, they were covering a Supreme Court case which ruled it unconstitutional for states to limit the sale of violent content to minors, with the caveat that sexual content could be limited.

Stewart’s argument, then, was to highlight the double standard that the media (and, by extension, the Supreme Court) have when it comes to allowing violent but not sexual content. Their reason for wanting to do this makes sense; after all, conservative politicians love to conflate liberals’ tolerance (and progressives’ acceptance) of differing sexualities with an endorsement of atypical sexual behaviors. This slippery slope leads to recent examples like calling teachers and librarians “groomers” for allowing a drag queen to read stories to children. Similar arguments were made at the time, which pre-dated the Supreme Court’s upholding of marriage equality for LGBT folk by nearly seven years.

So, if you were the kind of person who believed video games to be trivial in comparison to people’s right to get married, you probably excused Stewart for showing a violent clip of Mortal Kombat’s computer-generated body getting torn in half with realistic (albeit cartoonishly violent) graphics.

No, Actually: That IS the Point

While I agree that video games are trivial in comparison to civil rights, I also recognize how art affects people. It’s not an embellishment to compare one person’s time cross-dressing in Final Fantasy VII with the first time someone else first saw a John Waters movie. Some people had an awakening when they first heard Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” while others appreciated a profound beauty in The Last of Us. Just because some people don’t respect a certain artistic medium doesn’t change how others view it.

To Stewart, video games were Space Invaders and Doom. As he hinted to The Rock, these were addictive vices that kept him awake when he should’ve been meeting his wife for bedtime. These were not life-changing experiences.

What he didn’t understand is that a lot of people on various corners of the internet were feeling invalidated for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons was that their favorite art form was commonly dismissed by respected thought leaders, often for political purposes. This mentality led to GamerGate, which was started because misogynistic young men blamed women for intruding into “their” space. They believed non-gamer feminists were making false accusations about a medium they didn’t understand. While none of that was true (at least, not to the extent that proponents claimed), those feelings didn’t come from nowhere.

In fact, there were people intruding into gamers’ space, and some of them were trying to segregate video games from other forms of self-expression. The most famous (rather, infamous) example was Jack Thompson, a disbarred attorney who coined the term “murder simulator” to describe violent first- and third-person shooters. This was a religious zealot who spent decades filing frivolous lawsuits against Take-Two Interactive, the owners of the Grand Theft Auto series. The lawsuits usually followed school shootings, where he insisted the games influenced actual murders. Along with game publishers, he’d often include retail establishments like Target and Wal-Mart in his list of guilty parties.

I legitimately don’t know if other generations would even remember the things Thompson did. But if you simply say his name to any person who played video games during the 2000s and had even a cursory awareness of industry news at the time, the name will awaken a deep disgust and resentment at the pit of their stomach. For the longest time, he was the Gamers(TM) bogeyman, and anything that sounded like one of his talking points – such as appearing shocked and appalled at the violence of a video game clipped out of context – also summoned forth the same bitter feelings.

Made even worse were the studies which demonstrated, over and over again, that violent video games did not cause anyone to engage in violent acts. Sure, fast-paced, competitive games can lead to heightened aggression, but that dissipates shortly after the activity stops. But that didn’t stop moral panics from across the political spectrum from trying to censor them. In fact, the ESRB was founded as a result of congressional hearings from Democratic senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl.

So, whether he knew it or not, Stewart accidentally made a political point by using something he wasn’t all-too familiar with. In this way, it perfectly mirrors the lab leak mistake. In the same way the lab leak was promoted by anti-Chinese conservatives, the banning of violent video games through legislation was promoted by anti-free speech, pro-gun conservatives. By appearing to fall into their camp, Stewart appeared to tacitly endorse them.

The ultimate problem with TDS and Stewart from the 2000-2010s was they occasionally fell into the same problem Stewart identified with CNN’s Crossfire: whether done intentionally or not, they often played into conservatives’ political strategies.

What’s This Mean?

I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. Mostly, I just wanted to get it off my chest, throw it into the pile of sage and cleanse the air.

I really enjoyed Stewart’s first episode back. I appreciate the post-monologue bit where Jordan Klepper calls out Stewart’s criticisms, even if it was as the set-up for a joke. I also found it strange that his first guest was the conservative editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, who went unchallenged when she said American “liberalism” was more left than British Liberalism (with a capital L.) I would hope Stewart is aware how conservative our Democratic party is and how entrenched in capitalist propaganda we, as Americans, are.

Ultimately, I hope Stewart learns from his past and doesn’t fall into the same trap of 2004-era Tucker Carlson. Fingers crossed, for sure. I just have a feeling too many people are getting their hopes unrealistically high. We’ll see.

Hero Image:“Two Gray Bullet Security Cameras by Scott Webb via Pexels; all Pexels images are used with permission.


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