Cynics might assume that the fury [behind the excoriation of Cramer] was a pose. Humor requires ironic detachment, and nobody as funny and sophisticated as Jon Stewart could possibly be getting that mad on TV over something so abstract. A fair assumption, but wrong. Stewart really was enraged. It was all entirely, strangely real.
I know this from my own run-in with Stewart, on CNN’s Crossfire a few weeks before the 2004 election. Stewart spent a couple of segments lecturing Paul Begala and me about how we were somehow “helping the politicians and the corporations,” a charge that baffled me then (I’ve never particularly liked either one), as it does now.
Unlike most guests after an uncomfortable show, Stewart didn’t flee once it was over, but lingered backstage to press his point. With the cameras off, he dropped the sarcasm and the nastiness, but not the intensity. I can still picture him standing outside the makeup room, gesticulating as the rest of us tried to figure out what he was talking about. It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.
Finally, I had to leave to make a dinner. Stewart shook my hand with what seemed like friendly sincerity and continued to lecture our staff. An hour later, one of my producers called me, sounding desperate. Stewart was still there, and still talking.
No one this earnest can remain an effective satirist, and at times Stewart seems like less a comedian than a courtier to the establishment. In August 2004, a week before the Republican convention, Stewart got an interview with then-candidate John Kerry. At the time, reporters covering Kerry couldn’t get closer than the rope line, so the interview qualified as a booking coup.
Stewart squandered it embarrassingly. His first question (after, “How are you holding up?”) was: “Is it a difficult thing not to take it personally” when your opponents are mean?
“You know what it is, Jon?” Kerry replied. “It’s disappointing.”
Four years later, Stewart had become, if anything, even softer. Over the course of a reverential eight-and-a-half minute interview with Barack Obama six days before the election, Stewart failed to ask a single substantive question, much less venture into policy (though, as with Kerry, he did open with, “How are you holding up?”). Instead, like the cable-news morons that he often criticizes, Stewart stuck strictly to the horserace, at one point even resorting to a sports metaphor.
Here’s what I said about Stewart way back in 2004 after his Crossfire soapboxing:
You know what? I’m just gonna say it: I’m bored bored bored of John Stewart. The Crossfire thing was the final straw, the shark jumping. He’s permanently tainted, and from here on out we can only look forward to the long slide into “Remember when that guy was funny.” Sanctimony is death to satire. The last thing I need is the fake news guy thinking he’s King Shit protector of the public interest. Yes, Tucker Carlson is a dick. But we all have eyes. Damn, John. You used to be cool.
My feelings haven’t much changed. The long slide has taken rather longer than I expected, however. At least there’s Colbert!
(Yes, I know it’s ‘Jon’.)