Jon Stewart Resembled Jonathan Swift

Jon Stewart


It’s been just over a year since Jon Stewart left the Daily Show and I find myself still needing him. It hasn’t helped that Stephen Colbert left Comedy Central soon afterwards, and Gary Trudeau now writes Doonesbury only on Sundays. The talented Larry Wilmore, meanwhile, has just been fired, and Trevor Noah hasn’t yet shown than he can replace Stewart. While John Oliver and Samantha Bee are wonderful, they can’t make up for that daily dose of comic sanity that I had become dependent on.

I once wrote that John Stewart was our Jonathan Swift, a high compliment as I consider Swift to be the greatest satirist ever to write. When Stewart delivered his penultimate show, on August 5, 2015, I thought that he sounded very much like Lemuel Gulliver looking back at the impact of Gulliver’s Travels.

 For nostalgia’s sake, watch the piece here. Stewart looks at a series of headlines written about his shows over the years, all of them using the word “eviscerate.” As in “Jon Stewart eviscerates CNN” or “eviscerates Fox pundits” or “eviscerates anti-immigration protesters” or “eviscerates the Bush family.” “I feel like what we’ve built here is a monument to evisceration,” Stewart says.

Then he goes back to check whether, as a result of his satire, his targets are still “walking around with a belly full of viscera.” He appears shocked and amazed that it is business as usual with all those he has attacked. His satire appears to have made no difference.

I once wrote in another post–this one about right wing talk show host Laura Ingraham that the greatest satirists are not afraid to go after themselves. (I wrote this to disagree with someone who saw Ingraham as a Swift.) Great satirists realize that satire threatens to make them “holier than thou,” and both Swift and Stewart–but not Ingraham–go after the pride of the satirist. Swift said that his satiric pen started spewing venom whenever he encountered someone puffed up by pride, and he would sometimes identify himself as the culprit.

So in memory of Stewart, here is Swift—or rather Gulliver—expressing shock and amazement that Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t accomplished all that his publisher promised it would accomplish:

I do, in the next place, complain of my own great want of judgment, in being prevailed upon by the entreaties and false reasoning of you and some others, very much against my own opinion, to suffer my travels to be published.  Pray bring to your mind how often I desired you to consider, when you insisted on the motive of public good, that the Yahoos were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example: and so it has proved; for, instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.  I desired you would let me know, by a letter, when party and faction were extinguished; judges learned and upright; pleaders honest and modest, with some tincture of common sense, and Smithfield blazing with pyramids of law books; the young nobility’s education entirely changed; the physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in virtue, honour, truth, and good sense; courts and levees of great ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; wit, merit, and learning rewarded; all disgracers of the press in prose and verse condemned to eat nothing but their own cotton, and quench their thirst with their own ink.  These, and a thousand other reformations, I firmly counted upon by your encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the precepts delivered in my book.  And it must be owned, that seven months were a sufficient time to correct every vice and folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their natures had been capable of the least disposition to virtue or wisdom.  

In other words, all these people are still walking around with bellies full of viscera. Oh, where have you gone, Jon? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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