Is Tom Junod’s long piece in Esquire a takedown of Jon Stewart? Or just a thorough examination of the messiness of being an ambitious public figure these days? I couldn’t tell. But if you’re a Stewart fan or Daily Show viewer, Junod’s piece is well worth a read.
Now look at him. It’s seven years later, and he’s aged like a president. He’s been graying for years, but now he’s gone gray, and a transformation seems to have taken place. He’s forty-eight years old. He has a wife and two young kids whose lives he worries about missing because he stays so late and works so hard. Last year, when he did that thing, that Jon Stewart thing, that rally in Washington, D. C., he looked like he was starting to, like, fill out — his suit looked a little small on him as he made his big valedictory speech — but now he’s gaunt, and his face is sort of bladelike, collecting itself around the charcoal axis of his eyes, nose, and mouth. Still, he’s jacked. The whole studio is. You don’t have any choice at The Daily Show. For one thing, the music gets louder and louder as you wait before finally reminding you where Stewart’s from with a climactic rendition of Born to Run. For another, there’s a tummler, a warm-up guy who bounds around telling you that you might laugh to yourself while watching Jon Stewart at home, you might smile and chuckle at the apercus, you might silently congratulate yourself for getting the jokes, but you’re not at home anymore, and here you have a responsibility — you’re the laugh track. “Do you want to be on TV! Do you want to meet Jon Stewart! Then you better get loud…”
And now here he is. The man did stand-up for years, and in the studio you can actually see it on him, because whereas on television he clings to his desk like it’s an iron lung (former writers say that you know a bit is doomed if it requires him to get up from behind it), here he actually stands up and goes out to the audience to answer questions. And he’s a kibitzer — it’s not Plato’s Symposium, folks. The first question is “What’s your daily routine?” and Stewart answers as he’s been answering since Destiny’s Child was together: “Jazzercise.” The second question is “Which one of the animals on my T-shirt would you like to be?” and Stewart responds with a question of his own: “Is there a correct answer to that?” And even when a young woman with short hair and glasses and a faded cause on her T-shirt asks if “our greatest media critic” has actually had an impact on the way the media does business, he instantaneously cocks his chin, sucks in his cheeks, and narrows his eyes until he looks like a wizened version of the man whose image is emblazoned on the wall outside; then he deepens his voice confidentially and says, “Well, look who’s carrying the NPR tote bag.” Of course, he denies having an impact — “the satirist depends on shame, and everyone knows that our culture has become shameless” — but when somebody calls out, “But you killed Crossfire!” he says, “No, I didn’t. Crossfire was already dead…”
And there it is again, that denial of power upon which his power depends. It’s strange, isn’t it: One of the fastest and most instinctive wits in America feeling it necessary to go on explaining himself again and again; a man who lives to clarify resorting to loophole; the irrepressible truth-teller insisting on something that not one person of the two hundred watching his show in the studio — never mind the millions who will watch on television — can possibly believe.