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To say Jon Stewart is going out on top is an understatement.
As the comedian nears his final Daily Show on Aug. 6, he's relishing his final few weeks in the host's chair, riding high on Trump-mania and hosting special guests who, one by one, beg him to stay.
Among Stewart's adoring visitors was President Obama, who appeared on theDaily Show on July 21 for a much-hyped "final interview" that was more about Obama paying his respects to Stewart than the other way around. "I'm issuing a new executive order, that Jon Stewart cannot leave the show," Obama joked.
In the next two weeks, expect to see plenty of Stewart tributes, listicles, celebrity remembrances and weighty assessments of the host's place in history among comedy and broadcast greats alike.
But longtime Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac isn't as nostalgic about his time on the show, which he candidly discussed on Marc Maron's WTFPodcast this week.
And Cenac's criticisms of his former boss make an important point, one that can't be forgotten as we assess Stewart's legacy. Four nights a week, the host has challenged Daily Show viewers to question the leaders and institutions they trust. As his Daily Show comes to a close, we must give him the same treatment.
Liberal viewers may have embraced the Daily Show as a barometer of progressive thought, but Cenac tells a different story, about a show susceptible to the same climate of racial insensitivity as the rest of Hollywood.
He told Maron a story about watching Stewart do a Herman Cain impression back in 2011, which he found offensive. "Oh no, you just did this and you didn't think about it," he remembered thinking. "It was just the voice that came into your head. And so it bugged me."
Later in the writers' room, Cenac questioned Stewart about the bit. Stewart wasn't happy:
[Stewart] got incredibly defensive. I remember he was like, What are you trying to say? There's a tone in your voice ... And then he got upset. And he stood up and he was just like, "(Expletive) off. I'm done with you." And he just started screaming that to me. And he screamed it a few times. "(Expletive) F*** off! I'm done with you." And he stormed out. And I didn't know if I had been fired.
I represent my people, and I try to represent them the best that I can. I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don't want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that's exploitative.
Cenac was the only black writer in the room at the time. After, he remembered walking outside to a baseball field. "I was shaking, and I just sat there by myself on the bleachers and (expletive) cried," he said. "And it's a sad thing. That's how I feel. That's how I feel in this job. I feel alone."
Cenac's words aren't unique, coming from a black comic in an industry dominated by whites. It's also one that's largely ran by high-powered men, and while Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal and Jessica Williams are Daily Showsuccess stories, the show has been criticized in the past for its "boys' club" culture.
In 2010, several female Daily Show employees spoke to Jezebel about the show's gender diversity problems. "I was told when I was hired that they have a very hard time finding and keeping women, and that I was lucky to get a one-year contract," said Lauren Weedman, a former on-air correspondent.Daily Show co-creator Madeleine Smithberg also acknowledged the show's gender imbalance, claiming it was just part of the business. "By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces," she said. "All that's left are white men and Aziz Ansari."
Smithberg is right; casts and writers' rooms dominated by white, male faces are the norm. But for a program that transcended partisan spin and always questioned the status quo, it's dismaying to see that the Daily Show couldn't transcend Hollywood's culture of inequality.
And earlier in the interview, when Cenac tells Maron how he hoped he'd see Stewart as a father figure, it's hard not to think about the role the Daily Showhost has played in many young progressives' political educations. A sardonic Walter Cronkite for the Millennial generation, Stewart has introduced young fans to the dysfunction of American politics, helping viewers lose their faith in the system with humor and, at times, sobering emotion:
Which makes stories like Slate writer Alison Kinney's, who described Stewart losing his cool after she asked about his warm-up comedian's insensitive racial jokes during a Daily Show taping, all the more disappointing to read.
Stewart's face creased with annoyance. He said, shortly, loudly, glaring at me,"BECAUSE. IT'S. (expletive). FUNNY." The audience erupted into wild applause. Meanwhile, he stared at me with palpable hostility. Once the applause had died down, he added, "Don't you even watch the show?"
Nobody's requiring Stewart to be the perfect host. The Daily Show's brilliant comedic run isn't invalidated because the show couldn't best Hollywood's deeply-ingrained representation issues. And over the next two weeks, the show's accolades will surely outnumber its criticisms.
But Jon Stewart, week after week, has called on viewers to kill our idols and distrust our systems. The Daily Show is, undeniably, an American institution, but idolizing Stewart while glossing over his missteps goes against everything the show stands for. And by ignoring these darker parts of the Daily Show's history, we miss out on an important discussion about the less-than-inclusive state of comedy, and entertainment, as a whole.
So while we're enjoying Stewart's final run, let's keep asking questions. How can we empower minorities and women in Hollywood? What kind of inclusive humor do we expect from our comedians? If we're not satisfied with the face of TV, both in front of and behind the camera, how we can support art that's created more mindfully?