When Congress finally, belatedly passed legislation to help fund health care for the 9/11 responders, the New York Times — with thanks to the media's favorite pop-culture professor quote machine for more than a decade, Syracuse's Robert J. Thompson (full disclosure: I've even called him for a quote before) — put Edward R. Murrow's name in a headline suggesting that The Daily Show's Jon Stewart was his modern-day equivalent.
All because Stewart devoted one of his final shows of 2010 to 9/11 responders and the need to pass said legislation.
And whenever the NYT publishes, you can be sure that TV will follow. And so it was that ABC News' Sheila Marikar asked if the NYT comparison was "incredibly apt" (as friend of the site, Mediaite's Rachel Sklar suggested) or "ignorant garbage" (as Columbia University's Todd Gitlin suggested).
CNN also asked its in-house comedian/host Pete Dominick about Jon Stewart's role as an advocate. Roll that clip, shall we?
The debate, of course, could be asking a better question. Dominick even brings up the point. It's not whether or not Jon Stewart is like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. Because he's not. Stewart is a comedian, so he is not held to the same journalistic standards that Murrow, Cronkite, or today's journalists are.
It's not as if this is a new question, either. Four years ago, Hollywood made a movie, Man of the Year, which imagined a character much like Jon Stewart's who decided to run for president and won! Robin Williams played the lead role in that film, but politically-minded comedian Lewis Black also was in it, and I asked him back in 2006 about the notion of comedians running for higher office (this was before Al Franken's successful U.S. Senate campaign in Minnesota, mind you). I also posed the question to Doug Stanhope — who then was considering a Libertarian run for president — and Boston political comedian Jimmy Tingle.
But when you really stop to think about it, comedians are advocates all of the time, and always have been. A comedian speaks truth to power, whether it's the medieval court jester revealing the emperor has no clothes, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin or Richard Pryor showing the power words have over us, or today's social commentators who reveal their commentary on society in stand-up comedy clubs and theaters around the world. Sure, not every comedian focuses so much on politics and policy. Not every comedian has to. Jim Gaffigan told audiences on his 2010 theater tour about how much Americans rely on junk food — whether it's McDonald's or tabloid magazines — to feed their daily diet. Louis CK is making audiences rethink the way they relate to their children and the strangers all around them. Dave Attell continues to poke at an audience member's own thoughts about what is taboo. As does Sarah Silverman. Chris Rock. Tina Fey. Maria Bamford. Patton Oswalt. Bill Burr. They're all advocates. They might not be pushing for a particular piece of legislation currently up for a vote on the floor of Congress. But they are pushing for society to stop stalling, to move forward, to wake up.
They can do this because that's what a truly great comedian does.