Jon Stewart On Satire And Its Limitations

I’ve watched a lot of interviews with Jon Stewart and I’ve always wanted to hear his perspective on the effects of satire. A few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, he spoke at length about the limits of satire in the form of The Daily Show. Give it a watch or read a portion below in full form. This excerpt picks up right after Jon described a moment in the show where they caught John McCain in a lie on tape.

Jon Stewart: We nailed you. And then what do we have to do at that point? We let you go. It's catch and release because we have to undercut it with a laugh, and it gets to the joy and frustration of doing that type of job, which is -- and it's when we realize, too, that access didn't help us. So, it's that idea, I got you, and here's my one moment and I'm going to, with a scalpel, go at the crux of your identity as a politician and expose it for everybody to see, and then I'm going to have to make a joke about it, walk away, and you're going to laugh, and it's going to humanize you. One of the difficulties of this is satire began to take the place of reality. I think this has been given a greater place in the discussion, and a larger role in the discourse than is warranted. And once that started to happen, I think you began to question if it's a good thing or a bad thing. And I know it's not a black and white issue, but controlling the culture -- and for as much fun as we could make of the tea party, like, while we were up there passing around viral videos of eviscerations, they were in a Friendlies off the highway taking over a school board. And we've just had an election where the Democrats won the popular vote by probably more than a million votes, and they don't control the presidency, they don't control the house, they don't control the senate, they don't control governorship, they don't control state legislatures. This may be the largest disconnect between majority rule and majority power that we've had in this country in ages. And I'm in no way saying -- and we're responsible, and I'm responsible. But what I am saying is there is a comforting culture that can be mistaken for real power. There's only two towns in the world I've ever been that I thought were delusional, one was Washington, D.C., but the other was Los Angeles. And the only difference between Los Angeles and Washington, is in Los Angeles they actually believe they have power. But D.C. like -- that's where it is, man.

Charlie Rose: OK. But are you saying, essentially, that whatever we're saying about culture and the influence you have on the culture, in the end, it's not political power, and in the end it's not --

Jon Stewart: And in the end it's not real cultural influence, even. It's a story we tell ourselves about the rightness of our position. But it is argument, and it's not without weight, but it is not with so much weight. It's -- I believe that culture played a good role in marriage equality. I think it brought a story out that had been so much of what occurs with inequality is ignorance, and I don't mean that in a malevolent way. I mean that in a way that I have no experience with this. I don't know what that is. So exposure to that can be positive, although, generally, in an entertainment sense, the exposure is two-dimensional.

Jon Stewart: But you have to meet force with force, and The Daily Show is -- what I would say we are -- and, again, I'm not saying this to denigrate what we did. I am so incredibly proud of this was the best iteration of for me what I could do with satire and we prosecuted it to its fullest extent as far as I was concerned, as far as my brain could go. One of the reasons I left is I just -- I would just gonna be redundant and keep going back and forth with the same thing. I'm going to really do a terrible analogy, but we were Patrick Swayze after he died in Ghost. We were in the subway yelling at dead people and raging and no one could hear us. But if we focused everything that we had in one moment at just the right time, at just the right moment with everything we had, we could move the can just a little bit...

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Jon Stewart: We're impotently raging. Zadroga was ten years of back-breaking labor by John Feal and these first responders. It was corruption at a government level at the highest order that could be done. It was the people that had been hailed as heroes that ran into burning buildings that were told by our government, the EPA, that the air was safe but the air was not safe. They are dying. They continue to die to this day. They were forced with their afflictions to go down and hat in hand, knock on doors to people who wouldn't even meet their eyesight. And those ten years of working, they did all the construction and at the very end, Cindy Lou Who came in with just a little star and went ‘bink,’ and got way more credit for it than was deserved. They deserved that and continued to.

What I’ve taken away from this exchange is that satire assists change— it doesn’t make it reality on its own. It takes thoughtful organizing and lots of dedicated people taking direct action to shift culture to the point of it being represented in our laws. Though, it's clear the application of humor or satire can be used to get people to recognize the problem. Or as Jon Stewart suggested, perhaps it needs to be applied at just the right moment to garner the attention tip the scales in the direction of the cause. In a future post, we’ll take a look at John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight and his satirical calls to action.