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Jon Stewart's return to 'The Daily Show' reminded us to take him seriously

Stewart used his monologue to make a strong case for the kind of activism that doesn't begin or end during election seasons.

Jon Stewart’s first show back after a nine-year absence from hosting The Daily Show was filled with laugh-out-loud comedic barbs. Nothing was off-limits as Stewart, who’ll host the show on Mondays, comically tackled everything from President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump’s advanced ages to Israel’s brutal military response in Gaza to the corporate media’s obsession with having reporters stand in diners to talk to “real Americans.” But most profound were Stewart’s serious words at the end of his monologue about what he learned in his time away from the show.

Most profound were Stewart’s serious words about what he learned in his time away from the show.

“I’ve learned one thing over these last nine years, and I was glib at best and probably dismissive at worst about this,” he said. “The work of making this world resemble one that you would prefer to live in is a lunch pail [expletive] job, day in and day out, where thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people bang on closed doors and pick up those that are fallen and grind away on issues until they get a positive result, and even then, have to stay on to make sure that result holds.”

There are two vitally important takeaways from Stewart’s words. First, that if you truly want to make “this world resemble one that you would prefer to live in,” activism must be more than simply voting. And perhaps even more important was his plea that you “stay on to make sure that result holds,” because as we have seen firsthand in recent years: progress is not permanent.

No doubt Stewart’s remarks are informed by his own experience as an advocate. Stewart began publicly championing funding for 9/11 first responders in 2010 as he was hosting The Daily Show. At the time, Congress extended funding for 10 years, but by 2019 Stewart saw Congress dragging its feet to authorize additional financial resources. He testified on Capitol Hill and shamed members of Congress to their faces for their inaction. Finally, in July 2020, Congress agreed to permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

In 2022, Stewart again found himself on Capitol Hill and in the media advocating for legislation, this time for military veterans who were in desperate need of medical care after contracting ailments from exposure to burn pits during their service. At the time, Stewart slammed GOP senators who were holding up the proposed legislation that had been championed by President Biden.

After the legislation finally passed, Stewart received a standing ovation at the bill signing, where Biden told the comedian, “What you have done, Jon, matters, and you know it does. You should know it really, really matters.” The president added, “You refused to let anybody forget, you refused to let them forget, and we owe you big, man, we owe you big.”

And as Stewart correctly said Monday night, you must “stay on to make sure that result holds” because as we have seen in recent years, progress can be reversed. The most obvious example is reproductive freedom. Since 1973’s Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, women across our nation had been guaranteed that very right. But the forces who opposed self-determination for women worked tirelessly to reverse that. That previously recognized constitutional right was ended by a Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority, which empowered Republicans in numerous states to pass laws that force millions of women to carry a fetus to term against their will.

What you have done, Jon, matters, and you know it does. You should know it really, really matters.

President joe biden to jon stewart in 2022

The same goes for voting rights. Black voters had more voting rights protection immediately after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in August 1965 than today, because in 2013, a Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority gutted a key provision of that law that required pre-approval of changes to voting laws in states with a history of voter discrimination. Since then, GOP-controlled states have enacted multiple laws designed to suppress the votes of Black Americans.

People can debate whether Stewart’s comedic material was good or not Monday night. But what they can’t debate are Stewart’s words about activism. His own track record is a testament to that.

As to Stewart’s comedic material, some of my fellow progressives cheered while others viewed his jokes about Biden and Trump’s mental gaffes as dangerously “both-siding” the issue. In defense of Stewart, if you think he’s a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, then you have no idea what he or political comedians in general are about. Stewart has always been about comedically raising political and societal issues that often challenge people’s views.

It’s likely that Trump world is unhappy with Stewart showing clips of Trump repeatedly saying “I can’t remember” while under oath at depositions, bizarrely mispronouncing Pennsylvania and lying about Democrats wanting to change the name of the state. Stewart joked, “Biden’s lost a step, but Trump regularly says things at rallies that would warrant a wellness check.”

But what we should most remember about Stewart’s return is his acknowledgment of how hard and thankless it can be to bring about change.

What we should most remember about Stewart’s return is his acknowledgment of how hard it can be to bring about change.

After making the case for sustained activism, he said, “The good news is, I’m not saying you don’t have to worry about who wins the election. I’m saying you have to worry about every day before it and every day after, forever.” Stewart, ever the comedian, then said: “Although, on the plus side, I am told that at some point, the sun will run out of hydrogen.” 

Funny, challenging and inspiring. That is Jon Stewart, and it’s why we need him more now than when he left nine years ago.