There’s a Politico article making the rounds on social media that speculates on a presidential run by comedian Jon Stewart. The original headline, The (Fairly Serious) Case for Jon Stewart in 2024 has been changed several times, and currently it reads, If Tucker Runs in 2024, Here’s Who the Democrats Need. The author makes an earnest case for Stewart’s run, and has caused a viral discussion with strong opinions expressed on both sides.
We won’t comment on whether this is a realistic possibility or politically advisable – we’ll leave that to writers in political media. But this is a comedy website and Jon Stewart is a famous comedian. So let’s take this opportunity to talk about comedy.
The Politico article calls attention to the recent award ceremony at which Stewart was presented the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The event was a celebration of Stewart and his legacy. Speeches were given by former coworkers on The Daily Show as well as Stewart’s fans and friends, including previous Mark Twain Prize awardee, Dave Chappelle.
The article notes that several of the speakers spoke in hopeful tones about a potential Stewart presidency, using that as an indication that it is “on people’s minds.”
Whether you love him, hate him, or forgot he was still alive, you know that Stewart has had a huge impact on the world of television comedy. He transformed The Daily Show into a massively popular satire of television journalism, and used it to comment on the politics of the day. He helped change the way comedians talk about politics and spawned countless copycats. In fact, in his parody of political punditry, Stewart himself became a force for political advocacy.
There’s just one thing: Stewart does not want to run for president. As a testament either to the popularity of the article or Stewart’s ego, the comedian personally responded on Twitter:
Ummm…No thank you
— Jon Stewart (@jonstewart) July 9, 2022
Stewart has laughed off questions about a presidential run before. Way back in 2010, he rejected the idea in an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, and recently explained to Kara Swisher of the New York Times that he does not feel he has the “temperament” for the job.
But who knows? Maybe, despite every indication, he is planning to run. The article certainly created some buzz, although it was very mixed. However what is perhaps most interesting in this saga is a different line from the Swisher interview. “Sometimes” says Stewart, “I feel like I can be more effective from the outside than the inside.”
He’s right. The humor of Jon Stewart, or Lenny Bruce, or George Carlin, or Tim Dillon, or any of the comedians who use their platform to rage against the machine, only works when they are not part of the machine. The court jester, who can point and laugh at the king, can’t do his job if he assumes the throne.
We should not discount the political power of comedy. A good comedian with a significant platform can push levers in ways a politician cannot. Comedians might feel free to speak their minds without the burden of a politician’s inhibitions, and sometimes they can say things that need to be said.
In fact, Stewart was once called the most trusted man in America. Millions of people believed that what they heard from the funny guy on Comedy Central who pretended to be a newsman was a lot more sensible than what they heard on the actual TV news. Sometimes what Stewart said was funny because it was true; sometimes, people believed it was true because it was funny.
As Stewart pointed out, there are positives to being an outsider. Stewart was able to make an impact as the comedian peering in from outside. Put him on the inside, and that ability to point out hypocrisy is all gone. He would be turning his back on the thing that made him famous, and abandoning his abilities that the Politico article champions.
Comedy is a powerful tool in general because it can help to lay bare the absurdities of life. Stewart and others like him try to point that power towards politics to show what they perceive as hypocrisies. It’s a lot harder to show the absurdities of the system when you are the system.
Does Politico think that the trust that people have for a comedian that they like will remain if that person becomes a politician? Comedians rely on saying what they think, to make you feel like they’ve brought you in with them on some truth. It’s hard to imagine a politician who’s as willing to say whatever they think as a comedian.
In addition to a few TV stars actually becoming President (Reagan, Trump), there have also been comedians who made the transfer into politics. Al Franken wrote for Saturday Night Live before he became a Senator. Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy started as a comedian. Kal Penn starred in stoner comedies Harold & Kumar before working for the Obama administration, and Dave Smith has been a prominent libertarian voice, and their likely next presidential candidate too. So maybe from the political side of things, that’s the way the wind is blowing. But from the funny side of things, it’s clear that the comedy of Jon Stewart – and so many other comedians who use their voice to critique the world – would be a lot less funny if they became President.