Jon Stewart took hold of American culture on Oct. 15, 2004. That was the night he appeared on Crossfire, the CNN debate show hosted by longtime Democratic operative Paul Begala and a WASPy young conservative fond of wearing bow ties named Tucker Carlson. Sitting between the two, Stewart unleashed a blistering tirade, charging that Crossfire-style “partisan hackery,” which turned the serious business of politics into a contest of talking points, was “hurting America.”
Stewart had been hosting The Daily Show since 1999, when he took over for Craig Kilborn, but it wasn’t until that moment in 2004 that he became “a 21st-century Howard Beale,” as The New York Times would later note, referencing the mad-as-hell newscaster in the 1976 film Network. In fewer than 15 minutes, he had vented the liberal rage that had been bubbling throughout the Bush years: hanging chads, Karl Rove, Iraq, Afghanistan, Dick Cheney. And he did it on the network that was always supposed to play it straight, to swim only in the mainstream. You might say that Stewart regarded the mainstream media as the enemies of the people.
Stewart left The Daily Show in 2015 but is now returning, because Comedy Central failed to find a replacement for his replacement, Trevor Noah, who left in 2022. When the announcement was made this week, it swept across the internet with gale-strength force. Liberals are angry again, Washington is still broken, and CNN is earnestly finding its way back to the middle after several years of trying to outflank MSNBC from the left. The time is right for a Stewart return.
Unless, of course, Stewart was part of the problem in the first place.