Jon Stewart's Latest New Role

The “Daily Show” host returns Monday for his 13th year after giving a possibly game-changing boost to the 9/11 responder bill. But can he keep us laughing while restoring sanity?

Jon Stewart’s spot on the entertainment/political/news spectrum  – is he a comedian or an activist? – shifted to a new level of ambiguity just before Christmas when the White House lauded him for championing a stalled bill intended to help ailing 9/11 responders.

As Stewart returns Monday night to start his 13th year on “The Daily Show,” he faces new questions about whether can he pull off being both a comic and an advocate – even for an issue where opposition defied reason – and whether his success will embolden him to tackle new, perhaps less clear-cut causes.

Since replacing Craig Kilborn in 1999, Stewart has transformed from a news riffer to a comic commentator to a biting watchdog of politicians and journalists who not only points out the lack of sanity, but, in keeping with the spirit of his October rally in Washington, now actively tries to restore it. 

On his Dec. 16 show, Stewart’s last before taking a holiday break, he shamed the GOP for blocking a measure supporting as nonpartisan a cause as we have in this politically polarized time. But he may have come down even harder the major news media for what he deemed a lack of coverage of the Zadroga Bill – noting that Al Jazeera ran a 22-minute report about the measure.

"Our networks were scooped with a sympathetic Zadroga Bill story by the same network that Osama bin Laden sends his mix tapes to,” Stewart said in disbelief. “This is insane!"

He then trod one big step further by interviewing four 9/11 responders, letting them tell their stories in an segment packed with emotion, facts and just enough tasteful humor to remind the audience that “The Daily Show,” ostensibly, is a comedy program.

Stewart’s risk paid off on at least couple of levels: the interviews made for some powerful TV. The show also seemed to spur action – or at least notch attention. The New York Times noted that Stewart’s show apparently kick-started the cable news machine. The White House praised Stewart, even if doing so inadvertently exposed the Obama Administration’s own inability to smash the Republican logjam.

"If there's the ability for that to sort of break through in our political environment, there's a good chance that he can help do that," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Dec. 21. "I think he has put the awareness around this legislation. He's put that awareness into what you guys cover each day, and I think that's good."

The Zadroga Bill passed the next day.

It’s hard – no, pretty much impossible – to argue against the country’s duty to care for the genuine heroes who lost their own health in the rescue effort at Ground Zero. And it seems almost disrespectful to even place a discussion of a comedian’s future anywhere near that context.

Still, Stewart boldly made himself a player in the fight for the bill’s passage – drawing attention not only to the worthy cause, but to the expanding role and influence he’s carving out for himself in the once lonely confines of late-night cable TV.

His pre-election Rally to Restore Sanity, paired with his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive, may have been intended as a shot at partisanship, but the event itself was a political act. We’re still not sure what to make of Colbert’s surreal testimony before Congress last year – delivered as his conservative blowhard character – in support of a bill to help migrant farm workers.

It’s a more dangerous game in some ways for Stewart, who doesn’t have a character to deliver his jabs through, leaving him exposed. For all his comic attacks on pandering cable news blather, both from the left and right, there’s a danger by taking sides at the expense of comedy he could become what he mocks. But there’s little doubt that the evolution of our best providers of daily, late-night political satire makes for compelling viewing.

We’ll be tuning in Monday night to see how Stewart addresses the passage of the Zadroga Bill. Meanwhile, check out clips from the landmark Dec. 16 “Daily Show” installment, as well as Stewart’s debut, on Jan. 11, 1999, which harkens back to a simpler time when all we had to worry about was the impeachment of then-President Clinton:

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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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