No, you’re not the only person who doesn’t grok Jon Stewart. And you’re probably getting a lot of hate mail from fans of the Daily Show. That’s sad, but it’s a dimension of Internet culture that’s hard to avoid, at this point.
What’s especially sad is that these messages you’re likely receiving hardly help you to understand the phenomenon. To this social scientist, it’s a sad day when journalists are unable to understand what is happening around them. Assuming they do want to understand, of course.
Explaining the jokes wouldn’t help. But a shift in perspective would work well. Because you have most of the elements to actually understand the situation.
You are in fact on the outside of an inside joke. But the inside group is much larger than you seem to assume.
As you say, Stewart gets a “level [of press] far outstripping his reach.” This should tell you something. It’s not about the number of regular viewers. It’s closer to what people call “mindshare.” Popular culture isn’t just about sales. After all, “cult movies” aren’t measured by their initial box office.
But this isn’t a cult phenomenon. At least, not for the most part. Stewart is but one of the members of a large movement which goes much beyond the Daily Show.
Stewart’s frequent comments about problems with journalism and the “media” resonate with a large number of people who are fed up with being treated condescendingly by people who live in their own bubble. Stewart plays with his crowd by putting it on a pedestal. Self-derision works quite well in this case. Noticed how he keeps talking about jokes going well or not with the studio audience? Television audience members may interpret that as a sign of respect.
The fact that the Daily Show’s audience is relatively young, college-educated, and mostly male shouldn’t mislead you. Members of that team aren’t trying to reach the broadest audience possible by diluting the formula. They play well with their audience, which then has a broader impact on popular culture than a group with similar audience numbers.
As for the Academy Awards, you shouldn’t think about the Daily Show’s popularity as the reason behind the choice. They’re hiring a host, not the Daily Show crew or even a Jon Stewart comedy special. As a host, Jon Stewart has a number of characteristics. As Gil Cates says, Stewart can think on his feet. And he does adapt to specific situations. Sure, he maintains his style. But he can go from being the total show-off to being rather self-effacing. As for his comedy, though he considers himself to have been a lousy actor, his delivery is quite appropriate. And Stewart seems nervous enough about the whole thing that he’ll probably work well with the show’s producers. The Academy Awards ceremony isn’t just a vehicle for the host. They’re hoping that the show will be entertaining as a whole.
If you look back at the list of past hosts, it doesn’t read like a popularity contest for comics.
Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg are great but chances are that their box office numbers for the years during which they were hosts weren’t extremely high. And the show’s producers are probably willing to go on the edge to generate hype. The very fact that Jon Stewart’s inclusion in that list generates “press” should tell you something about what can happen.
Relax, enjoy the night.