In 1994, a young, largely unknown comedian named Jon Stewart appeared in “Mixed Nuts,” a movie starring Steve Martin. His part? Rollerblading man.
Not exactly a star-making role. But it was a precursor to what was coming — 16 years later, Stewart is a writer, producer and the host of “The Daily Show,” a daily late-night comedy series that points out the hypocrisy of American politics and political media, with Stewart interviewing a never-ending cast of politicians, authors, lobbyists and journalists on either side of the red-blue divide.
The title of the show may as well be “Mixed Nuts.”
While Stewart has found his home among young, politically sharp and comedy-loving viewers alike, he holds a special significance for Chronicle readers: He was born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, a Jew.
Now, on the heels of his massively successful Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., last Saturday, which drew more than 200,000 people, one might wonder: is Jon Stewart the most important Jew in America?
Many Pittsburgh Jews would argue that he’s at least one of them.
“He can pick out the hypocrites in both parties,” said Shadyside’s Sarah Glascom, 31. “But he’s not attacking them. He’s has a very edgy self-deprecating humor. People watching ‘The Daily Show’ are not a lowest common denominator.”
Seth Glick, who attended Saturday’s rally, said Stewart is intrinsically Jewish because “self-deprecating humor, well, that is Jewish humor.”
So Stewart is funny, yes, but important? And important to the Jews?
A recent poll of over half a million readers, by the online magazine AskMen.com, named Stewart “the most influential man,” introducing him with “Stewart’s show was once dubbed the ‘fake news,’ but these days it’s become our youths’ most trusted source of information and its host the most trusted man in America.”
Stewart’s importance as a Jew comes in his delivery. More than any other anchor, Stewart sparks discussion and debate — two factors central to any Jewish gathering, be it about Torah study or kosher food prices.
His “Daily Show” segments have, in recent years, satirized the Islamophobia, racism and bigotry of so many public leaders and cable pundits, pointing out — with cutting wit and humor — the glaring errors and mistakes of those leading our country. It’s a deeply Jewish tactic: as the little guy unlikely to win over the masses with force or blunt persuasion, get your point across with humor.
Time and time again, Stewart’s Jewish approach has succeeded. As a guest on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004, he resisted the goading of hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala into argument and instead destroyed the destructive back-and-forth show with some dry wit: when Carlson defended “Crossfire” by juxtaposing it with “The Daily Show,” Stewart responded, “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to. I wouldn’t aim for us. I’d aim for ‘Seinfeld.’ That’s a very good show.”
The poor journalism of “Crossfire” was put to Stewart’s test; by early 2005, it was canceled.
Similarly, just last month, CNN host Rick Sanchez notoriously called Stewart a “bigot” and implied that he led the Jewish-controlled media. Rather than hurl insults at Sanchez, he maintained his calm, responded with searing wit on “The Daily Show.” Sanchez was almost immediately fired.
And then there’s last Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity, launched in response to Glenn Beck’s conservative-bating rally in August. More than doubling the Beck rally’s attendance, Stewart drew a crowd interested both politically and for, as Stewart often says, “the theater of it all.”
“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” he said in the rally’s closing address. “These are hard times, not end times.”
Stewart may not wave his Judaism for all to see, but if you know what to look for, it’s there. And, depending on your views, it’s leading this country’s return to sanity.
Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.