Written by: Allaina Kilby, Lecturer in Journalism, Swansea University
When Jon Stewart quit the Daily Show, the satirical news and comedy show he hosted for 16 years until August 2015, he explained to his replacement, Trevor Noah, that he was tired – and angry at the state of politics and political discourse in the US. As Noah reported:
He said ‘I’m leaving because I’m tired.’ And he said, ‘I’m tired of being angry.’ And he said, ’I’m angry all the time. I don’t find any of this funny. I do not know how to make it funny right now, and I don’t think the host of the show, I don’t think the show deserves a host who does not feel that it is funny.‘
Stewart is clearly no longer tired. And he has channelled his anger into passion for a cause: he is now a fierce advocate for the James Zadroger 9/11 Health Compensation Act.
On June 12, he appeared in front of Congress, which was sitting to discuss the extension of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund for 9/11 first responders and survivors. The committee witnessed testimonies from a physician, a firefighter’s widow, and Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD detective, who was due to start his 69th round of chemotherapy after developing cancer from working at Ground Zero.
The testimonies offered a powerful insight into the health problems of those who were exposed to the toxic air where the World Trade Centre buildings collapsed. But it was Stewart’s impassioned speech to Congress that went viral.
The media’s fixation with Stewart’s testimony isn’t attributed to his celebrity news value, but the symbolic capital he built since his time on The Daily Show. As chief news anchor, Stewart built a reputation as an important satirical voice and incisive social commentator to a generation that had grown tired of sensationalised news and vitriolic politics.
Hitting the funny bone
The essential ingredient of Stewart’s scathing political critiques was humour; it helped create a bond with the audience as he used his platform to comedically articulate citizen anger towards elite institutions. Subsequently, the humour acted as a form of relief, offering the audience temporary respite from the current political environment by inviting them to laugh at those in power.
It is was the inclusion of humour that made Stewart’s work a potent form of political criticism because it made the aggressiveness of the message more palatable to the satirical targets. This is why Stewart was able to land critical blows on air that journalists couldn’t – because he defied the conventions of traditional journalism while speaking to audiences in a language they identified with.
Stewart has always been quick to downplay his cultural impact, responding modestly that he just “writes jokes about the news” and that his role as a TV satirist was limited to criticising targets rather than building something positive. Perhaps that was why he decided to turn to advocacy when he quit nightly comedy.
While Stewart’s advocacy role no longer affords him the comedic safety blanket he once had, it is the absence of humour, in his address to Congress, that made his message all the more powerful. What we saw was a visibly emotional man, holding back tears as he expressed his anger at the shameful way in which the political system has treated 9/11 survivors.
The role of emotion in politics has tended to be understood as the enemy of good citizenship. But in her book Emotions, Media and Politics, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen argues that emotion can enhance the power of political storytelling because of its ability to cultivate compassion, bring neglected stories to the public sphere and, in the process, call into being communities orientated towards political action.
Stewart’s powerful testimony certainly raised the profile of the Congressional hearing as the video clip spread rapidly online and generated hundreds of news articles. The following day, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would permanently reauthorise the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. According to the New York Times, the bill will now go to the floor for a full vote in the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass.
A serious business
Stewart’s transition, in recent years, from satire to political advocacy has not gone unnoticed by his late-night TV successors. In a paper, Provoking the Citizen, I documented how satirists Sam Bee and John Oliver have adopted advocacy journalism strategies to draw attention to US President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration and female healthcare. But while Stewart and American late-night hosts are reimagining the possibilities of their public platform, their UK counterparts are seriously lagging behind.
The closest the UK has to a successful comedy activist is Mark Thomas and his campaigning on the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. Russell Brand was also a prominent political activist for a time, appearing on Newsnight and attending demonstrations including the Million Mask March and campaigning for better social housing. However, Brand has openly admitted his failure in politics was a result of believing his own hype, a consequence of his celebrity status.
While there are many instances of comedic activism I could mention – Eddie Izzard’s role in the Labour Party and Ricky Gervais’ work with animal rights groups, comedy remains their chief currency and profession. What Stewart has shown us is that comedy and satire have limited capabilities. They can draw our attention to a problem, but the ability to create real political change is dependent on passion, tenacity and sustained engagement in the democratic process.
Allaina Kilby does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.