Jon Stewart, 'the godfather of righteous outrage,' is the newest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize
“Jon strives to make sense of the insane and find joy in the darkness.”
On Sunday, Jon Stewart received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor for imbuing American society with the social commentary, satire and comedic fearlessness America has come to think of Samuel Clemens, who like Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz also used a stage name. The annual ceremony was held at the Kennedy Center and will air on PBS this summer. Stewart is the 23rd award recipient and though many hilarious, incisive honorees graced the stage before, Jon Stewart may be in an even more rarified air in that group joining George Carlin, Dave Chappelle and David Letterman.
It’s tempting to say he is the talk show host version of Lorne Michaels, the 2004 recipient of the award. As the creator of Saturday Night Live, Lorne helped launch an incredible number of comedians careers into the stratosphere. More than a few Mark Twain Prize recipients had SNL tenures - Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and Bill Murray. It’s only a matter of time before Stewart’s acolytes are considered for the award as well - John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj and Larry Wilmore (Note: I’m assuming John Oliver and Trevor Noah would be considered regardless of nationality.)
To honor Stewart, many from the Daily Show and other comedic celebrities presented at the Kennedy Center including Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and others. Of the snippets that have been shared prior to the June 21st public broadcast, Steve Carell’s epithet spoke volumes of the individual who comforted and inspired millions from Indecision 2000 to just before America lost its collective senses in the Trump era.
Jon strives to make sense of the insane and find joy in the darkness.
Prior to PBS airing the star-studded affair, Comedy Central hosted the first two award recipients back in the late 1990s, with Richard Pryor being the inaugural honoree. The most recent award recipients - Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart - became household names on that very network. To those outside the US, Comedy Central is an almost niche television network that never reached the ranks of being even a ‘kid brother’ to the likes of ABC or NBC. It’s more like the quirky family relative you meet at weddings and infrequent family get-togethers. And somehow Dave and Jon were able to hone their singular voices to garner national and international fame by expressing their unique perspectives without regard to career ambitions and elite acceptance. Each walked away from financially and culturally secure positions because staying on Comedy Central didn’t feel honest. Of course, part of why Dave left was for a truly disgusting affair he described on David Letterman’s Netflix show. According to Stewart, he left the Daily Show because:
I think it was that sense of having worked down in Washington. The Daily Show was kind of an exercise in catharsis, an exercise in you know sitting in your underwear yelling at the TV screen. And there was a certain impotent rage to it. But it also for my creative mind ran its course. I didn't.. I wasn't quite sure how to evolve it anymore. I wasn't quite sure what else to do with it and I don't.. and it became.. I didn't want it to become a caricature or become rote and you don't want to stay somewhere just because they're letting you.
Like Letterman, performing a television show daily lost its luster. They both sincerely profess to have loved their experiences but having to mix celebrity ‘flavors of the week’ with truncated conversations with guests they wanted to deep dive into issues and ideas with ran its course. Letterman after retiring from CBS went on to produce My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which has limited episodes featuring in-depth conversations in which Dave’s curiosity is allowed to roam free with guests of his choosing. Stewart’s new show has similar intentions. In his words:
The idea for the show is sort of simple which is set the map on where the kind of corruption or perversion is on whatever issue we're talking about. Let some of the stakeholders express how that corruption or perversion affects what they're trying to accomplish or affects their lives and then try and talk to somebody who might have a sense of how you could overcome that or in a position where they could affect it.
When Stewart left the Daily Show, many critiqued and lamented the move given his enormous cultural influence. Some of his Daily Show correspondents filled the void - Oliver, Colbert and Bee to name a few - but there was an earnestness, warmth and empathy in Stewart I personally never felt others were able to hone as well as he. In the footsteps of the comedic legend George Carlin, Jon Stewart wasn’t just going for a quick quip but looking for the other level that resonates deep in incisive satire.
One of my favorite Carlin bits I’ve seen more times than I can count is his bit on soft language. How using euphemistic language hides the true intent of words because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Without recounting the entire joke, Carlin goes well beyond a humorous social observation to sparking any thinking listener’s mind to the dehumanization we endorse unconsciously through our speech that hides dark truths. Throughout Stewart’s tenure at the Daily Show, there were many silly, slapstick-type jokes; but Jon also cleverly and disarmingly commented on America’s wars, torture, Yemen, the financial crisis and so many more issues that fueled countless watercooler and barroom conversations. A good comedian will have you repeating their jokes; a great comedian gets you to talk about what they observed and why it matters to you.
During this year’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony, Samantha Bee called Stewart ‘the godfather of righteous outrage.’ Without having seen the show, I would bet she was not just referring to the Daily Show pantheon of comedy Jon inspired but also referencing his civic honor, as demonstrated in Stewart’s opening statement to Congress on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund nearly 18 years after the attack:
On a related note, Stewart’s activism led to President Biden’s saying in the State of the Union address:
Name the other comedian(s) whose social activism led the President of the United States to reference their social cause in the State of the Union. Do any come to mind?
Yes, Stewart could have had his pick of the litter of news shows after The Daily Show. He could have stayed on Comedy Central throughout the Trump administration, though despite what many claim, I doubt being a voice of reason in a hyper-partisan, toxic online cultural moment would have resonated as it did when much of America was generally ambivalent if Gore or Bush won the 2000 election. Jon Stewart chose to refine and mature his voice and dedicate his efforts to increasing understanding of important, complex issues while affecting change. ‘Burn pits’ may not be as socially significant as ‘Stop the Steal,’ but Stewart effectively championed the former while no comedian or talk show host has come close to bridging the gap of understanding of that deleterious conspiracy, which seems more likely than not will have a significant impact on the next presidential election.
Stewart has an uncanny ability like Carlin, Letterman and Chappelle to have a large cross-section of society focus on America’s cultural North Star. On June 21st, we can all watch Jon speak an undeniable truth:
When society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first. It's just a reminder to people that democracy is under threat. Authoritarians are the threat to comedy, to art, to music, to thought, to poetry.
..if you want more Jon Stewart this weekend: