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The end of comedy

Even just one or two deviations from the PC line raise suspicions on the left


Jon Stewart hosts "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Aug. 22, 2007. Associated Press/Photo by Jason DeCrow

The end of comedy
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After a multiyear hiatus, the famed comedian and social commentator Jon Stewart has returned to The Daily Show. Although the ESPN SportsCenter anchor Craig Kilborn made a splash as the original host prior to leaving for a late-night spot with CBS, Stewart was the personality who really made The Daily Show a pop culture phenomenon. It became a Comedy Central centerpiece that ultimately helped launch the careers of Stephen Colbert and The Office’s Steve Carell.

As the leader of the show, Stewart ascended to a new level of cultural influence. Although he’d made his reputation as a mid-level stand-up comic, he became a media heavyweight. The Daily Show’s selective editing of interviews all too often set up conservatives for mockery and readily reinforced the left’s view of itself as witty and urbane. The program offered a powerful tonic to America’s establishment elites, who seemingly couldn’t get enough. The character Stephen Colbert invented and made the basis for a new show was clearly an over-the-top caricature of Fox News’ superstar Bill O’Reilly.

Stewart’s cultural prestige grew to such an extent that when he lectured Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for harming American political discourse, his critique stuck. Crossfire came to an end, while The Daily Show continued. It seemed the combat of the older show succumbed to the mockery and satire of the new one. Debate was out, replaced by a new approach where the cake was baked from the start.

After nearly two decades, Stewart grew tired of the grind involved with producing multiple episodes every week and retired. The Daily Show continued, but in the age of streaming has never had the influence and reach it did when it was still the darling of cable when cable was king. South African comedian Trevor Noah gamely hosted the show for several years, but now Stewart has returned to the platform that made him a star.

Stewart’s reinstallation as host is less interesting than the reaction of some of his formerly adoring fans to it. A recent Rolling Stone article questions whether Stewart is the right person to take up the mantle of The Daily Show. The reason the author gives is amusing on its face. Alan Sepinwall argues that Jon Stewart’s “both sides are terrible” approach no longer works in 2024. I’m not sure what show Sepinwall and the editors of Rolling Stone were watching for a couple of decades, but it did not feature an even-handed critique of the two parties and their dominant personalities. Instead, there was virtually always a joke at the expense of conservatives accompanied by knowing winks and nods.

Stewart seems to have taken a few risks in his years away from Comedy Central.

Nevertheless, it is true that Stewart seems to have taken a few risks in his years away from Comedy Central. As an example, in 2021 he ridiculed those who resist the idea that the COVID virus did, indeed, originate in Wuhan, China, where there was a lab dedicated to virological research. When he faced a backlash over his comments, Stewart observed how problematic it can be to try to reach the truth when political allegiances dictate what can and can’t be discussed.

The simple fact is that political correctness is deadly to the pursuit of truth and to comedy—and comedy is one of the ways we try to expose emperors without clothes by unsettling rigid, self-important, and sometimes self-flattering bromides. With one or two deviations from the accepted political or cultural line, even an ultra-highly regarded member of the cultural elite like Jon Stewart can fall from grace and become an object of suspicion.

The Rolling Stone article questioning whether Stewart is now an appropriate host of The Daily Show nicely demonstrates the basic fragility political correctness imposes upon those who embrace it. In fact, fragility is probably too weak a word to indicate how pathological political correctness can be. In its more advanced forms, political correctness assumes the form of the “party line” familiar to survivors of murderous totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (and even a few in the 21st). Those who manage to survive in such environments learn to carefully match their conclusions to those dictated by the possessors of status and power.

Jon Stewart was a bit dumbfounded by the uncertain reaction of Stephen Colbert and his audience when he expressed his doubts about the wet market theory of how COVID spread across the globe. Why? After years of being congratulated for confirming the opinions of supporters and making fun of their opponents, Stewart may have become confused that he really was valued for being a truth-teller and an independent voice. But that was never true.

What is the fate of comedy in a politically correct world? It’s the same as a jester who serves a king who can only be flattered. The finale is guaranteed not to be funny.


Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.


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