Jon Stewart was revisiting some ancient history, his 2004 spat with CNN’s Tucker Carlson, who had accused Stewart of evading responsibility by hiding behind a pose that he was “just a comedian” something Stewart had never said. Six years later, the larger point still bugged him. “What’s been misconstrued there is the idea that I’m saying I’m just a comedian,” he told me. “I’m not saying I’m just a comedian. I’m a ” That’s when our food arrived. And in a display of attention deficit or plain old bad reporting, I never went back and made Stewart specify just what he thinks he is these days.
Or perhaps it’s because defining Stewart was silly then and is even sillier now. Last week, in a series of segments that should win the Daily Show an Emmy or a Pulitzer or at least a really nice fruit basket, Stewart ripped Republicans, interviewed sick 9/11 first responders, and bashed the lack of network news attention as he advocated for Congress to pass the Zadroga Act. And today Congress did just that. Probably the Senate would have cut the cost and cut a deal anyway; New York’s Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler, Peter King, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Chuck Schumer probably would have been just as instrumental in making it happen. But Stewart’s perfectly timed, tear-jerking, and occasionally funny shove sure dialed up the shame and increased the momentum. So is Stewart a comic, a politician, a liberal, a demagogic special interest? Well, the political-media game changed this decade, and the old definitions don’t matter as much. The thousands of sick cops and firefighters who will be getting their medical bills paid know what to call Jon Stewart: a hero. But one who will now be plenty happy to go back to making more jokes.