When I first arrived at the University of San Francisco back in 2002, I had major problems handling things. I had succeeded in managing my ADD/HD when I was a senior in High School, but college required a “togetherness” that I had not yet achieved. I also had a serious fear of dating, and ended up dating someone really bad for me because I was too afraid to communicate. But my worst problem was simply social: I had a really hard time adapting to the new community and my low self-esteem stood in the way of making friends. I was surrounded by “bros” and “party girls”, most of my roommates and floormates could not have fun until their blood alcohol level reached at least point one. I didn’t like drinking or smoking, which made me the odd one out in the actors club to which my high school interests had pushed me. I was so afraid of rejection that, after being bullied, turned down, or let go a few times, I simply stopped trying. I never stopped being me…but I felt safer spending my time reading or playing video games in my room, or exploring San Francisco….or watching the Daily Show in the common room.
I had never seen the Daily Show before, but Jon Stewart got a hold of my respect instantly. I’ve always liked Jester characters, having played a few in a Shakespeare program, and he deftly personified the Fool-trope of being able to speak truth to power. Fools were considered the lowest of the low, owned by royalty, clothed in humiliation, but this shielded them from the normal consequences of standing up to authority – usually. Stewart can self-depreciate with the best (worst?) of ‘em and he’s been quick to point out when the subject of his ridicule was even adjacent to Viacom, the company that produces, owns, and distributes his show. Thus, to me, he was clearly owned by kings and made a fool of himself whenever possible just like any bell-hat wearing fool, but I saw more into that than may have been intended.
Stewart presented himself as a human, an infallible, unattractive, common person. He derided his past acting career as skill-less, pointed out the childishness of many of his jokes, and really made to present an honest, if lowly, view of himself. This connected with my low self-esteem neatly, I felt small and he presented himself as small. But he stood up to Big Groups, often faceless corporations and the increasingly vicious politics of the Bush Era. And to the bleeding Heart liberal college kid I was, full of compassion and no experience, standing up to such daunting villains as Dick Cheney was immensely heroic. Even mythic.
He even stood up to media giant CNN’s intellectual sluggishness, attacking the poisonous show Crossfire from the inside. If you haven’t seen that video, it’s amazing. This show earned all of its ratings by pushing the divide between Liberals and Conservatives, making the political conversation increasingly intense and vicious. He went on Crossfire ONCE, told them to knock it off, and lo, the program was pulled later that year by executives, who referred to Stewart’s arguments. He stood up to bullies, the cruelly ignorant, and the greedy. He did it with honesty, with silliness, and with video.
On that point, I don’t know why so many people in the spotlight of the public, be they celebrity, politician, or mogul, believe themselves to be free from the consequences of past speech, but Stewart showed them otherwise. I still remember the (now legendary) clip 212, in which Jon demonstrated the culpability of the guest, a TV Economist named Jim Cramer with whom Stewart had feuded over the former’s unethical behavior, by showing a clip of Kramer speaking on his own CNBC show. Stewart made Cramer and others eat their words over and over, and I ate it up too.
Jon Stewart became a sort of surrogate friend, in that I always knew when I would see him (11:00pm West Coast time, Monday through Thursday), he championed causes I cared about, taught me much, and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in a new college in a new city. While I made friends easier in my sophomore year, I continued to watch Jon Stewart (and then the Colbert Report) for years, long after college. I watched every episode I could (thank you Comedy Central for streaming your shows), shared clips with my friends, and followed the horrific problems in our society that he revealed. Besides my parents and Spider-Man, Jon Stewart became a hero to me; I am a Jon Stewart Nerd.
Somehow, then, the news that he would be leaving the show hit me like unto a terminal illness of a friend, a feeling that carried over to the last episode, which earned tears both happy and sad from me. I suppose I had foolishly assumed that this man, despite having his own life, family, and existence beyond the show, would be on my computer screen into perpetuity. I struggle to think how I can put a world with Stewart’s … stewardship into context for the students I’ll teach in the future. While I’m sure that Trevor Noah will come in to his own, he’s not Jon Stewart and never will be. I’ve got a Stewart sized hole in my heart, and that’s ok.
I know it’s not about me. Stewart gave so much to his audience, he deserves retirement and more. But in those moments, while he was delivering his last manifesto on Bullshit, a sober reminder that we must call out the lies he revealed to use in his absence, I felt a rough and uncomfortable letting go. I released him to the ether and sent tears to follow. I was utterly worn out.
And then Chris Hardwick came on. He spoke right to the audience, acknowledged our pain, and offered his show as an attempt to console us. In those words, in his expression, I found an unmistakable kindness. I was reminded that Truth-from-Humor was most certainly not dead; there are other entertainments, revelations, and adventures to be discovered and had. He invited us to join him in his upcoming @Midnight, with no promise that his show would salve our heartache but every intention and hope that it would.
I was also reminded how I came to become a fan of Chris Hardwick, by following his Nerdist Podcast from its infancy, seeing him at my local comedy club, and enjoying his writings. The kindness he showed in that moment connected me to the kindness and good intent I saw in so much of his work…and in Stewart’s work.
Stewart inspired a generation to keep hope, use humor and that selfsame hope to build something better, and be honest with ourselves when we’ve failed to do that. Stewart’s Liberalism is not born of hatred of any institution or feud with “traditional values”; Stewart demonstrated a Liberalism forged in optimism and compassion. The faith that we all are human, all want human things, and for that we band together into societies, and that’s every reason to try and build and maintain the best society we can. He made jabs at the big dogs not because he judged them as worse than himself, but because we should all expect better. I appreciate that optimism in Hardwick’s “Nerdist Way”, an excellent self-help book which has aided friends of mine. I appreciate that optimism in the “fan of everything” joy with which Hardwick conducts interviews. Both men, of different paths in their comedy, show us that humor can have an incredibly positive effect on ourselves and society. Humor can lessen the blow of harsh truths and ease the rough road ahead. The “ha-ha” moment of fun can also be an “aha” moment of realization. They taught me this.
So thank you Jon Stewart, for helping us lay down bare the truths we must face. And thank you Chris Hardwick for helping us pick ourselves up.
Stewart, you are my hero, and I wish you joy and relief in your retirement, you deserve it.
Hardwick, you’re a kind man, and I’m glad so many people think of you when they think of nerds.
Thanks for being there for us.