Is Jon Stewart New York’s greatest gift to the lesser, rest of the world?
More to the point: Is Jon Stewart our greatest New Yorker?
Of course he is.
Granted, there isn’t a lot of evident competition right now. Derek Jeter has become a born-again capitalist. So has Mike Bloomberg. Idina Menzel has lost her Frozen shine. Jerry Seinfeld has mostly stayed in the shadows since his show went off the air in 1998. Larry David appears to be a contender (but, perish the thought — what if his Broadway show prompts people to curb their enthusiasm?). Does anyone get excited about our mayor? Brian Williams will keep a very low profile, in disgrace. The SNL 40 celebration has come and gone. We take Woody Allen for granted.
Even if someone stepped up to challenge Stewart, he’d deserve the kudos. He has single-handedly done for the City in this century what SNL accomplished in the late 1970s: he gives us a source of local pride. It’s inconceivable that Stewart could do his show from anywhere but here. Stewart couldn’t be as big of a star or a presence in Los Angeles. His sarcasm might get lost in the glamour shuffle out there.
Yes, Stewart provides the kind of humor that seems likely to have an impact in a politically-charged community such as Washington — except for one factor: Washington. The town, save for an awards show here and there, has not become known for laughing at itself. I lived briefly in Washington and became convinced that the town didn’t have much of a sense of humor. It takes itself a little too seriously. Hey, when more than an inch of snow falls on the ground in the Beltway, everything stops. Office and schools promptly shut down.
Maybe I’m biased…but I have more fondness for my fellow New Yorkers than the denizens of any other city. We are a notoriously hearty bunch. In sub-Arctic temperatures, we put on another layer and our snow boots and we shut up about it — except to poke fun at one another. We don’t get thrown off track too often or too easily.
Stewart has two things going for him that make him identifiable as a New Yorker: he has momentum and he is likable. Even when he is skewering someone — save for Dick Cheney — he comes across as rather endearing. He’s not mean-spirited. Even when he carved up Nightline way back when, his sincerity came through. He had a mission — to educate people — not to tear down CNN.
And yes, Stewart has momentum. He is a TV force unto himself. There is nobody quite as good as he is — not Colbert, Maher, Weekend Update, or anyone else.
He has an everyman quality about him, too. As a former colleague on his old MTV show said to me about him, “He is a really smart guy who just worked harder and was nicer than the other comic guys out there ,and he was ready when he was called upon.”
Those qualities came across when I started to notice Stewart, back when he was a staple on The Larry Sanders Show, still probably the wittiest show in TV history. Stewart projected a sense of decency, even as he was taking over and supplanting Larry Sanders. Stewart seemed to have learned a lot from that experience. He, as Garry Shandling (who co-created the show, wrote his share of episodes and starred as the title character) did in 1998, is leaving while his star is still burning bright. Stewart may feel burnt out, but he never seems that way when the red light goes on.
Stewart has fantastic comedic timing. I learned this the one time I met him. It was about 10 years ago, when his book America was riding high. He appeared as a guest at a Newhouse School/New Yorker breakfast. I had a great time. Stewart was as charming as ever. Afterward, I rushed up to the stage and got in line so he could give me an autograph — something I never did up to that point and have not done since.
I presented my business card and he graciously signed his name. When I complimented him on his Larry Sanders acting, he thanked me and flashed a grateful smile. “Nice of you to remember,” he said.
When I got to the lobby, I saw STACKS of free books. I grabbed one and asked him to sign it. He looked down at me, clutching my FREE book, and said, mock-menacingly, “In line again, I see, HUH?” I suspect that he meant, ‘you cheap bastard! You can’t spring for a book at Barnes and Noble!’
Then we both laughed.
If I had to be chastised, I’m glad that our greatest New Yorker was the one who did it, with his characteristic aplomb.