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?