Jon Stewart left Comedy Central’s Daily Show on August 6, 2015. That was his final episode.
That day, Facebook lit up with posts of praise and mourning. Some of the posts quoted him or included clips from one or more episodes. Here is just one example:
Jon Stewart’s departure from the Daily Show caused a great deal of reflection on his legacy. In just the few days after August 6, I saw a steady stream of it. The following Sunday featured the tongue-in-cheek rumor that he quit so he could run for president—a fantasy that had some dreaming.
Indeed, what a legacy he left. On August 6 in Business Insider, Maxwell Tani cataloged 5 times Jon Stewart actually changed the world. It is quite a list, and yet it swings for the “big ones” only; it leaves out all the times when Stewart’s words made someone change, which is, no doubt, more times than any one of us knows or could count. How many times did someone decide to go this way and not that way because of something Jon Stewart said? It has to be millions.
Jon Stewart changed me, too.
At 51, I have learned that I will never understand most of the other people on this planet. I never have and never will. I have met many thousands of people face to face, and many more via social media and customer service calls; gotten to know some well and some very well. I have heard stories (a.k.a. rumors) about many, many others. I am related to some of them. Some of them I feel a real affinity for, but a lot of them mystify me. They say things that make no sense to me; or they do things that seem, to me, to be nuts; or they raise their kids in ways that seem too far right or too far left or too far just off.
I have had the same experience concerning many people groups as well. I say “people groups” in a very generic sense, as in any way in which someone names people who share something in common, such as Texans, women, men, Europeans, trans-genders, Millenials, liberals, conservatives, and so on. I have read and heard about thousands of such groups, and many of them mystify me, too. They say and do things that I do not understand.
Jon Stewart specialized in addressing the people and groups he did not understand—not always, of course; he did host guests, such as Malala Yousafzai, with whom he had an affinity. But whenever he targeted someone outside his field of dreams, that is when he would shine. He would make fun of them like a top-five schoolyard bully. He would insinuate. He would use his barbed verbal skills and Gromit-like facial expressions to make them look crazy, stupid, idiotic, insane, evil, misguided, barbaric, coarse, immature, out of touch, corrupt, lazy, greedy, or whatever undesirable quality suited the occasion. He would draw from both holsters and pull both triggers. He would mock them without mercy. His goal was to make you laugh at people, and he was very good at it.
That is how he changed me. The more I laughed, the more superior to others I felt. The more episodes I watched, the less willing I was to try to see things from someone else’s point of view—to try to understand them. The more “Sinner” labels I put on people, the more self-righteous I became. And the distance between me and them became great; so great that the very idea of talking to them became impossible. I did not want to try to understand them; I reviled them.
And then one day I realized how ugly a person I had become. I was a predator on the lookout for new victims. My world was smaller than it had ever been. There was Us, and there was Them, and They Were Morons.
It is not possible to form a cohesive brotherhood of anything with that kind of mentality. It is not possible to “coexist” or to “Give peace a chance” or to “Cease fire.” When you are laughing at others, their lives don’t matter. You are against them; you hate them; you are their enemy; you don’t want to touch them and you wish them harm.
Jon Stewart—or rather, my consumption of his material—made me realize that if I am ever going to live at peace with the other people of this planet—most of whom I do not understand—laughing at them is not going to get it done. In fact, it is going to make things worse.
So when Jon Stewart announced that he was going to quit the Daily Show, I was glad. I did not like the person he had exemplified and the person I had become—a person who widens the divide between me and others, rather than one who builds bridges to them. You cannot build bridges to people you are laughing at. You will gladly kick the chair out from under them, but you will not hold it for them. You will vote to go to war against them; you will circulate petitions to silence them; you will, yes, grow to hate them. You will not try to live at peace with them, not at any cost.
Maybe all the people Jon Stewart took to task truly are stupid, crazy morons. I’m sure some are. Even if they are, they are still people—other human beings with a different point of view with whom we need to live. And if they have any self-respect, they are surely not going to sit down at the table and talk about it with people who are laughing at them.
Maxwell Tani is right. Jon Stewart did change the world. He took something deplorable—mockery—and made people like it. I really wish that had not happened. Do you want to go through life looking for people to laugh at? I don’t, not anymore.
Many people are clearly going to miss Jon Stewart. I will not be one of them.