Last week Jon Stewart startled audiences by announcing that when his contract runs out in September, his sixteen-year run on Comedy Central’s pivotal satire The Daily Show would end. Stewart’s farewell has prompted entertainment writers and critics to laud his cutting wit, fearless humor, and brilliant mockery of the preposterous pageant that has become our political discourse. He will be dearly missed. But perhaps his absence will be most keenly felt by the humanist community. Under Stewart’s reign, The Daily Show became, if not an explicitly humanist show, one that reflected the humanist values of compassion and critical thinking.
Quite a few humanists have undoubtedly enjoyed The Daily Show for its unflinching jabs at the religious right. While many in the media shy away from calling out the more extreme positions of fundamentalist Christians in the name of balanced reporting, Stewart is unafraid to openly criticize these positions. For example, he’s regularly mocked the religious right’s manufactured “War on Christmas” and the Christian privilege that it represents. Stewart has also exposed, both critically and humorously, the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to prevent women from receiving access to contraceptive care through the Affordable Care Act. He’s been a staunch defender of the First Amendment, including the freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. In a frank interview with controversial atheist Bill Maher, Stewart and Maher discussed the difficulty of running for office as a nontheist. “In this country, you can be gay, you can be a woman, you can be Jewish—you can’t be an atheist,” Stewart observed. “I find that bizarre.” Many humanists certainly find this unfortunate fact bizarre as well.
Whatever path or paths his career takes in the future, Stewart will hopefully continue his legacy of supporting the rights of nonbelievers. Already, his directorial debut, the film Rosewater, signals as much, as Stewart worked closely with Maziar Bahari, a self-described nonbeliever, on the project to bring Bahri’s experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of Iran’s extremist regime to the screen.
Beyond satirizing fundamentalist religion on The Daily Show, Stewart has also espoused humanist values of compassion and a respect for human dignity. He’s frequently covered the human rights abuses committed by the United States, including the torture of prisoners, and he often roasts “serious” news sources for failing to do the same. He advocated relentlessly for the James Zadroga Bill, which provided assistance to first responders who were suffering from health problems as a result of their work at Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, Stewart’s promotion of the bill is credited by many to be the reason for its passage. He demonstrated his commitment to women’s rights, both in the U.S. and around the world, in an interview with Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist for girls’ education in extremist Muslim countries. And he ruthlessly lampooned the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied marriage equality to same-sex couples, until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Though Stewart is a non-practicing Jew, he’s never identified as a humanistic Jew. Still, The Daily Show espouses a humanist worldview that centers on the real needs of people in this life, not upholding religious ideologies or dogmas.
Perhaps what’s truly endeared The Daily Show to many individuals in the humanist community, however, has been its emphasis on critical thinking. In a time when mainstream news outlets seem more interested in pandering to political persuasions on both sides of the aisle than reporting the facts, Stewart as a comedian has seemed more serious about the truth than some journalists. For example, despite identifying as a liberal and a progressive, Stewart has been willing to deride MSNBC for its biases. He is also well-known for his jokes about CNN and their frequent reports on the banal in a desperate attempt to fill airtime as well as their overly simplistic reductions of complex political and social issues. And of course, no article about Jon Stewart would be complete without mentioning his mockery of Fox News for its blatant twisting of the truth to promote its partisan agenda. During and after the 2012 presidential election, Stewart’s heckling of Fox News reached new heights of ridiculousness, largely due to the network’s own frantic and absurd attempts to explain why Romney lost the election. “The party of personal responsibility did what it does best: figure out why it wasn’t their fault,” Stewart declared after pointing out that the results had been opposite Fox News’s predictions. He also noted the network’s hypocrisy in claiming that God was on their side while simultaneously blaming acts of God for the election results. “And don’t think God is getting off the hook in this election!” Stewart gleefully and shouted sarcastically before showing clips of Fox pundits backtracking on their previous predictions of political victory.
During his tenure on The Daily Show, Stewart has showed the American public how satire can be effectively used to not only entertain and joke but to also expose the truth underneath our partisan political rhetoric. What are your favorite Jon Stewart moments on The Daily Show? And who do you think should replace him as the host of the show?