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Gristmill: Not So Funny

Wed, 11/15/2023 - 17:49
Jon Stewart and family at the Kennedy Center, where he received the 2022 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
PBS via YouTube

Volodymyr Zelensky did it. The transition from comic television performer to leader of the free world, at least morally. Now it’s Jon Stewart’s turn.

Consider that in 2022 he was honored with a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in the capital. It aired on PBS, and when an onstage Pete Davidson made a crack about Stewart running for president, the camera cut to him up in the box seats with his family, and he wasn’t laughing. He sat stone-faced, as if girding for an impending, onerous responsibility.

He’d thought about it.

The Great Communicator, isn’t that what they called the actor Ronald Reagan? He certainly wasn’t a heavyweight intellectually, he’d even once been a Democrat, and, more consequentially, a union president, when it suited him.

But he could be persuasive. As Stewart can in arguing for 9/11 first responders’ health benefits before Congress, or in driving a rhetorical truck through the Swiss-cheese defenses of the latest apologist for the gun nuts. Or that time he famously exposed the “partisan hackery” eating away at American political discourse on CNN’s “Crossfire” talk show, as practiced by the hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala.

And he can do all this while expressing complete sympathy for the guys he grew up with in New Jersey who love Trump.

Desperate times call for new thinking. Possibly third party thinking, though only a celebrity could pull it off. What’s desperate isn’t even the sputtering 2024 presidential election, seemingly headed for a rematch of two gaffe-prone, 80-ish old men the majority of Americans wish would bow out. It’s bigger than that.

Faithful readers of The New Yorker may have noticed in July Louis Menand’s piece on the end of neoliberalism, and his tossed-off allusion to an admired book called “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” by one Martin Wolf, who “doubts whether the United States will still be a functioning democracy at the end of the decade.”

Ouch. But hey, F.D.R. saved it once. We may well need the services of another master of the media, Jon Stewart, to do it again.

And Sacha Baron Cohen can be his secretary of state.


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