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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, doesn’t want to be considered a part of the political system. He’s a comedian: an outsider, shouting at the core decision makers, just to make us laugh. In a 2007 interview with Bill Moyers, Stewart explained, “You know, people don’t understand that we’re not warriors in their cause. We’re a group of people that really feel that they want to write jokes about the absurdity that we see in government and the world and all that, and that’s it.” 

In her new book, Angry Optimist, biographer Lisa Rogak details Stewart’s unlikely rise to hosting a hit television program that averages 1.4 million viewers per night, has won dozens of awards, and has an undeniable impact on the American political debate. 

In the excerpt below, Rogak recounts Stewart’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, which began as a joke, and ended up attracting over 200,000 attendees and moving him closer than ever to the political mainstream. 

You can pre-order the book here.

“If somebody wanted to start a twenty-four-hour news network that would focus on corruption and governance as opposed to the politics of it, do you think that that would have a chance to be successful and change the way debate occurs in the States?” he asked.

In lieu of starting his own news network, Stewart opted to take a baby step in the interim by instead launching the Rally to Restore Sanity, which most people saw as a satirical response to a “Restoring Honor” event that Fox News commentator Glenn Beck held in August 2010. Beck’s rally went head-to-head against another rally managed by Al Sharpton that same day to honor the Great March on Washington that Martin Luther King, Jr., spearheaded forty-seven years earlier.

“The rally is like everything that we do, it’s merely a construct,” Stewart said. “It’s just a format in the same way that the book is a format or the show is a format. [They all] translate the type of expression that we do, and it’s to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do, and the point of view.”

Though Stewart’s rally began as a joke on his show, public support quickly grew and Colbert joined in with his idea for a simultaneous March to Keep Fear Alive rally. The two promoted their respective events on their shows, and soon crowd estimates grew to almost seventy thousand people—thanks to a Facebook page set up for the event—which necessitated moving the rallies from the Washington Monument to the National Mall.
In promoting the rally, Stewart maintained that it was intended to send the message that the vast majority of Americans— from 70 to 80 percent—who are more moderate in their political beliefs, get drowned out by the vocal and extreme minority. He coined the rally’s official slogan: “Take it down a notch for America.”

“That was the point of the rally,” he said, “to deflate that idea that that’s a real conflict: red vs. blue, Democrat vs. Republican. I feel like there’s a bigger difference between people with kids and people who don’t have kids than between red states and blue states.”

As news and plans for the rally started to unfold—along with requests for press passes from media from around the world—people who couldn’t attend planned for their own rallies to occur simultaneously with the D.C. event. Even President Obama weighed in on the event, saying he was “amused” when he first heard about the rally. And both Colbert and Stewart took advantage of the interest to encourage attendees to donate to several nonprofit organizations, including—a favorite charity of Colbert’s where public school teachers post classroom projects that need funding and people can donate money online—and the Trust for the National Mall.

Celebrities from Sheryl Crow to Ozzy Osbourne showed up, and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, now called Yusuf Islam—who rarely performed in public since officially retiring from the music business following his conversion to Islam in 1977—sang his signature anthem “Peace Train” with Stewart. But the gist of the show consisted of Stewart and Colbert in ramped-up versions of both their characters, building their individual cases—Stewart for the middle ground and reason, Colbert for encouraging people to be fearful of everything under the sun, as dictated by both media pundits and politicians alike—before Stewart took the mike and addressed the crowd in an artful, heartfelt speech that caught many in the crowd off guard, since it showed a sincerity rarely glimpsed on The Daily Show, last seen during his opening monologue on the first show after returning to the air after September 11, 2001.

“The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic,” he told the crowd. “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker . . . and perhaps eczema.”

Not surprisingly, he then turned his attention to politicians and the government. “We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do,” he continued. “We work together to get things done every damn day. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.”

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For the first time in his life, in that fifteen-minute speech, Jon Stewart finally revealed a little bit of the man behind the desk. “After twelve years, [I felt] I’d earned a moment to tell people who I was.”

On the day of the rally, officials estimated the crowd at 215,000, which far outnumbered the estimated 87,000 attendees at Beck’s rally.

While Stewart was overwhelmed by the response and support at the rally, he was also surprised when a realization bubbled up from out of nowhere while he addressed the crowd. “When you’re standing at a rally and there are a hundred thousand people…[t]here’s an incredible urge to go, ‘I have the answer! Follow me!’” he admitted.

At the same time, he clearly understood that while many people thought Stewart was stepping out from behind his desk because he could clearly have a big effect and change some vital component of either politics or the media, that was never his intention in planning the rally. “I can understand the frustration of people who would be in that audience and think, ‘you’ve been complaining for twelve years, this is your chance to stop whining and do something,’ ” he said.

Afterward, he had to run interference and reinterpret his aims for the media, because some people—at the rally and those who viewed it on TV—misinterpreted his intentions, perhaps thinking he was presenting a serious event to encourage people to get involved in politics. Some even ventured to guess that Stewart was using the rally as a way to test the waters for his own future political campaign, but all along he maintained that it was meant to be no more than a parody while spotlighting his view that most people agree with “the idea that the conflict [in America] is left versus right when it’s actually corruption versus not-corruption.” And though Stewart’s political leanings are crystal clear to even an occasional Daily Show viewer, he wanted to convey the idea that neither left nor right is blameless since “both sides have their ways of shutting down debate.”

So he made a rare appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC a couple of weeks later to clear things up, but if anything, he only ended up muddying the waters further. “Whenever you go out there, whatever you put out, you can only control your intention,” he told Maddow. “You can’t control its perception or how people receive it, [but] you can control your execution.”

At times, things got a little testy between the two. “I feel like we’re doing the same thing,” said Maddow. “We both have a commitment to not lying, to telling the truth where we see it.”

But Stewart clearly disagreed. “You’re in the playing field; I’m in the stands yelling things.”

In the end, the two came to an uneasy truce that was still filled with mutual admiration. And perhaps it was no surprise when Glenn Beck, the inspiration for the rally, weighed in, critiquing the Stewart/Colbert event as on the same level as “a high school play: not good,” though he did acknowledge his admiration for Stewart. “Jon Stewart is very funny, and if I were in his position, I’d be doing a lot of the same things,” said Beck. “He takes things out of context—no worse than most of the other mainstream media—and is more interested in being funny than trying to actually understand the key messages in [my] show. I don’t think he’s looking for a Pulitzer, but his ratings are good. Good for him, keep doing what he’s doing.”

Beck maintained that Stewart was merely conveying the same message that he himself did in his August rally. But unlike Beck, Stewart was “co-opted [by the liberals]. I don’t think he liked it…he was used,” said Beck. “[When] the president himself promotes the rally, it becomes a mouthpiece for the [Democratic] Party, it became just another campaign stop. I don’t think that’s what Jon Stewart intended.”

“Just because Jon Stewart makes fun of it doesn’t mean he’s right,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Angry Optimist, Copyright © 2014 by Lisa Rogak. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10010.

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Copyright 2014 The National Memo
  • raginyank

    I think John Stewart & Steven Colbert are our oasis in the desert of political wasteland. Their observations make us laugh and think; two things that are a win win just like to two of them. Keep doing what your doing; we love you both!

    • meoverthere

      Add John Oliver to that list as well. His show on HBO is incredibly informative, yet entertaining as well.

      • raginyank

        Yes indeed. I can’t wait for Steven to take over for Letterman; the GOP clown car is headed to an audience near you.

    • Brabado

      Didn’t realize that there were so many “uninformed” liberals living in the “political wasteland”… No wonder they elected Obama, not only once but twice, to throw our Nation under the bus…
      Congratulations to all!



      Semper Fidelis

      • S.J. Jolly

        Under a conservative, i.e., GW Bush, the US economy crashed. That is successful?

        • Brabado

          Yes Jolly, you are right. Bush crashed the Economy, reason why Obama was elected, twice, to fix it…
          Yet, his incompetence, ignorance, detachment, and laziness have given our Nation de Coup de Grace, burring it, 25 feet into the ground… Has Obama been successful. Or any better than GW.. I think not! Just look around you, and around the World – not one foreign leader trusts him, at all… Why I wonder?
          Hope you can put your arms about the above Reality, leaving behind the “traditional Liberal propaganda”

          Jolly, also wanted to thank you for your comments…


          Semper Fidelis

          • toptwome

            President Obama has fixed the economy and it was only because of Democrats. The GOP schemed against the country and against President Obama in a treasonous way that showed just how unconcerned they were about the American people. He was to be a one term president because they would make him one. You are a wackadoodle who has not paid attention to the fact that everything President Obama has done was to correct the mess left by Bush. Jobs are coming back. Every month there has been positive job growth because that was what Democrats fought for. If you do not see the contempt and the lack of any cooperation from the republicans you elect, well you are deceived. President Obama worked for the good of the nation. You are just another right wing idiot and we sure have too many of them.

          • Sand_Cat

            Not sure anyone cares what deranged and deluded “conservatives” think about much of anything.

      • toptwome

        We Liberals are very informed while most republicans are very misinformed watching Faux noise. There is no doubt who is more correct in our thinking. I voted for President Obama both times and it was not because of Comedy Central programing. It was because I wanted the intelligent President Obama who values the lives in this country and does not make up lies for war. I admire him and the hate toward him because of right wing lies and demonization show the GOP as their revolting selves.

  • j.martindale

    The “Both sides do it” meme is tiresome. The stupidity and cupidity of the right in American politics boggles the mind. The extremism on the left pales in comparison. Fortunately, the Stewart program focuses on the worst excesses in American government which naturally leads him to highlight the idiocy of the right.

  • Louis A. DeFreitas, Sr.

    Jon Stewart speaks his mind and he is not afraid of the consequences. That is rear in media. Whether you agree with him or not, his ideas are his, not the ideas of the people who advertise on his on program.

    • S.J. Jolly

      You mean “rare”, not “rear” . No? And edit out the 2nd “on”.

      • Louis A. DeFreitas, Sr.

        You are correct. Thanks for the help. I need all I can get. Lou DeFreitas, Sr.

  • KathyKursh

    I was at that rally in DC. And I agree the media coverage did skew it. The participants were all friendly, knowledgeable and cleaned the mall at the end of the rally.
    Jon and Stephen are the best., continue the work.

  • Marsha Matthews

    As one who made the trek to DC for the rally, I witnessed first-hand how most in the media twisted the event to fit its narrative and, not surprisingly, missed the point in its need to make it “sexier” than it really was. And that’s the problem – The media is no longer the objective party, reporting what really “is” but instead is a vehicle reporting what a particular journalist or talking head “perceives”; issues are no longer reported in detailing the complexities of any given issue but, in the most basic of terms which does a great disservice to the public.

    The only criticism I have of the rally was the “both sides do it.” True, to a point but in the media’s need to define everything as sensational, one or the other, black or white, it ignores the humongous grey, facts and evidence be damned. Willfully or not, it is complicit in todays polarized political climate.
    And, on a day to day basis, major league kudos to Stewart and Colbert for highlighting the absurdity of it all.

  • Brabado

    Why would anyone compare a Confirmed Looser like John Stewart, with “hard working, honest, decent clowns???
    Semper Fidelis

    • S.J. Jolly

      “Looser” ?

      • Brabado

        Yes Jolly, Stewart is a Big Looser, like all those “uninformed soles” that follow his childish like trivia because they are stocked in a pre-puberty cycle… a/k/a the former Flower Children, remember them? Carefree and meaningless lives?
        Hope all of you, lost in the desert of la, la, land
        grow up, get a meaningful job, join the rest of the REAL Civilized World and make a serious contribution to it…
        Hope, it is not too much to ask!
        PS: Don’t forget to send your checks to Al Gore’s Bank Account so that he can keep fighting Global Warming…. Awkward!!!


        Semper Fidelis

        • Sand_Cat

          Too dumb to even get Jolly’s point, huh?

          • S.J. Jolly

            Alas, yes. Wonder how long it took him to memorize “Semper Fidelis”?

        • S.J. Jolly

          You’re ESL, perhaps? (Marine speak not counted).
          Look up: “Looser” vs “Loser”. “sole” vs “soul”. The meaning of capitalized words not at the start of a sentence. I.e., “… fighting Global Warming.” implies fighting an organization named “Global Warming.”
          Also, (too much to ask, but I will anyway): Stop projecting your pet demons into the comment postings of others.

          • Brabado


            Thank you so much… Your comments “confirmed everything” every point I made, in my Reply to you, above. Do also support Harry Reid, in abolishing our 1st. Amendment??? Why don’t you surprise your audience?

            R E G A R D L E SS!

            Semper Fidelis

          • S.J. Jolly

            Go ahead and believe every point in your postings. Makes you happy, no?

      • mah101

        Smile and wink, S.J.

    • toptwome

      My husband was in the military for 21 years. The Army, and they sure did spend the most time in any place they served. Like a year in Iraq and months in Panama. I doubt most military would agree with you now. President Obama wants to keep Americans away from wars and not see them killed and maimed.

    • Sand_Cat

      Confirmed by whom, idiot?
      If you want to keep our armed forces out of harm’s way, don’t vote GOP.
      I’m sure you “informed” conservatives never saw the debate in which Jon Stewart completely dominated Fox “News” man Chris Wallace.

  • Bud Friend

    He is a comedian. He is a political pundit.

    The choice is yours. But, he’s awfully funny.

    • Phantom

      Which is higher — Brabado’s IQ or room temperature?

  • toptwome

    Sometimes Jon is angry but more than anything he is entertaining and informative. I have disagreed with him and I prefer Stephen Colbert, but Jon Stewart does a lot of good with his informative jokes and funny jibes.