Come clean, Jon Stewart: you're an activist, journalist and a comedian

<em>The Daily Show</em> host is beginning to face up to the fact that he is more than a comic - whet

When I suggested earlier this week that Jon Stewart had been put on the spot during an interview on Fox with Chris Wallace, commenters - and indeed colleagues - argued that I had read the interview wrong. I thought Stewart looked flustered when Wallace argued that Stewart relies too much on the "I'm a comedian" defence. They argued that Stewart's response - "When did I say that I am only a comedian? I said I am comedian first" - showed that Wallace's criticism was false.

I still don't think it did, but it does reveal that something has changed in Stewart's physche. He's finally coming round to the fact that he is more than a comedian, whether he wants to be or not.

Until that interview, Stewart had always implied that because The Daily Show was a comedy show on a comedy channel, it shouldn't be taken that seriously. Watch the video of him on CROSSFIRE, or previous interviews on Fox. Indeed, moments before the "comedian first" comment in the Wallace interview, Stewart said: "I'm not an activist. I'm a comedian."

That is hogwash. There's a simple reason why some people think Stewart is an activist: he does things like organise mass rallies in the middle of Washington DC. Indeed, here's how Stewart described the "Rally to Restore Sanity" when he went on Fox in September last year:

The folks that I see in my gigs that I go out to are real Americans, plumbers and such. They tell me that they don't feel represented by the extremities they see on things like Fox News and other things like that. They say the real voice of the people has been muted by the extremists, that the loudest voices are the ones that seem to carry the day. So what I'm hearing is they want to feel a catharsis that they are not alone, that they're also represented. So that's why we are doing it. We are trying to find that thin sliver of America between pinhead and patriot.

That, to me, sounds like activism, rather than comedy.

Stewart is a comedian, but a lot of what The Daily Show does is journalism - with jokes. Stewart, finally, seems to have accepted that he is not "only a comedian". This is a step forward. Stewart needs to accept that he is an activist and a journalist, and then The Daily Show can get on with being the best news-based show on television.

That Stewart's show is regularly cited as one of the most trusted news sources in the US is not just evidence of the US's lousy news culture; it is an indication of the show's strength. The Daily Show investigates and digs out hypocrisy among both the media and politicians better than many news channel and newspapers. There is no reason, then, that The Daily Show can't be both a news show and a comedy show. Good satire informs and entertains.

Whether he wants to be or not, however, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are being yanked from the cushy, cocoon of "comedy" into "infotainment". This is not necessarily a bad thing. In Britain, Private Eye straddles the spheres of comedy and journalism perfectly. Why can't The Daily Show?

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt