I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.
When I was 13 years old I bought a tiny, black-and-white television set from a yard sale for $10. It got 4 channels and you had to wrestle with the bunny ears to even get those, but it was a huge deal for me. Although we had a TV in our living room it was closely monitored, and most shows were forbidden. My siblings and I would set our alarms to sneak into the living room and watch Saturday Night Live every week, and if my Mom was out of the house we would catch In Living Color and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and when I was home sick it was Beverly Hills 90210, all the way… but there was always the fear of getting caught and having all privileges revoked. No secular television was technically “allowed” – the only reason for the existence of the TV was so that there was something to hook a VCR up to so we could watch a series of Christian cartoon videos. You can imagine how exciting and stimulating those were to a pre-teen who was already hiding borrowed Steven King novels between her mattresses.
Once I had my own TV hidden in my room it was ON. I could now watch whatever I wanted (well, as long as it aired on those 4 channels) and one day, I found The Jon Stewart show. Not only did I find the writing hilarious and smart, but I developed the type of obsessive crush on the host that only a young teenage girl is capable of forming. I thought he was brilliant, handsome, and was drawn to his endearing humility and quick wit. This crush actually ended up creating my “type”, something that has followed me into adulthood. From that point on, show me a nerd with dark curly hair and I will swoon like a motherfucker. Some of those crushes (*ahem* Jeff Goldblum) not only survived into my adulthood but have actually grown. Once Jon moved over to The Daily Show, I loyally followed him. Cable was trickier but being old enough to stay over with friends at that point, I made it work. I moved out of the house at age 17 and it was never an issue again. Since then Comedy Central has been non-negotiable in any apartment I lived in, even when I was making $7 an hour and had to go without other things. The ritual of watching the show and the comfort it brought me was a form of the actual therapy I should have been in and could never have afforded.
Growing up I was a very well-read, smart kid, but I had zero interest in politics. I didn’t have much interest in reality in general to be honest, because most of what I saw of it was shitty. I despised organized religion, having grown up in it, and spotted hypocrites everywhere I turned. As far as I was concerned, politicians fell into the same category and the whole thing seemed like a hugely sexist, racist, homophobic pile of unending shit that could never be changed. I never had anyone to look up to in real life outside of my older siblings, so I rejected real life. I cared about fiction. I cared about creating realities that were better than this one. As a child I was either not very empathetic, or was so much so that I had to turn it off and just retreat into fantasy. I’m still not sure which one of those things is true.
But as the show progressed, something changed in me as it grew more deeply analytical and political in tone. Besides my love of watching Jon, he seemed to have a way of pulling back the curtain and showing us the working parts that make up the world that we live in. He also had a way of doing it piece by piece, so that none of it felt overwhelming or insurmountable. I started engaging. I started examining my political views, trying to understand how they were formed and whether or not some of the foundations they were based on might be made of bullshit (spoiler alert: they were). Although I knew I was an Atheist from the time I could form such thoughts I never realized how the narrow, bigoted world I had grown up in had affected my political stances without my even noticing. Sure, I never treated people who were “different” from me badly or thought of them as lesser, the way I was taught to (my Mother once screamed at me for almost an hour accusing me of being a lesbian because I refused to stop hanging out with a gay friend I had as a teenager), but of course all murderers should get the death penalty I mean why are we even talking about this? And capitalism?? YAY. Although I had rejected the religion I was raised with and the Evangelical Christian Republican label that went with it, my political views by the time I was about 20 had ended up falling somewhere in the region of Naïve-Ayn Rand-ian-Libertarian-VagueTown. I had yet to truly explore that part of my mind and expand my understanding of how the world worked outside of the only country I knew. But along with reading and watching the show, I was now actually reading world news almost every day- something you would have had to put a gun to my head to get me to do just a few years earlier. I also suddenly wanted to travel outside of the country, and saved so that I could do so.
My older sister, who eventually went on to get her Masters in political science at Harvard, rejoiced. Always the most earnest child you have ever met in your life, she wanted to make the world a better place from the time she was small, and politics was a way she saw to do that. In the past whenever she had tried to talk to me or get me excited about politics, my eyes would glaze over after about 5 minutes. I had no trust of adults in positions of authority of any kind, no matter what political party they belonged to or what words came out of their mouths. They were all liars and none of them really cared about anything but themselves. My life up until that point had taught me that lesson, and I had learned it well. But now I was the one calling her, wanting to have discussions about politics and asking questions of someone who was years ahead of me in learning about this strange clusterfuck of a system we live in. She was ecstatic to oblige.
All of that was well over a decade ago and when I look back I certainly cringe to remember how strong my political convictions were, especially considering my limited understanding of pretty much everything. But when you are 20 years old you tend to think you know everything, so I try not to be too hard on myself. I don’t need to tell you how The Daily Show got better and stronger, or try to emphasize the enormous effect his show has had on the young people and the culture of this country. There have already been so many articles written on the subject, and I trust that you have access to google. This is a selfish post, explaining what he did for me. And yes, he has had a strong team of writers and correspondents behind him and they all deserve praise and recognition, but for me, if not for his voice, I wouldn’t have tuned in. His empathy is palpable and his willingness to be criticized is admirable. He will also make a complete and total ass of himself in the service of a bit and that is something that has never changed, no matter how successful the show has become.
When someone points out something problematic in one of his segments, I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to get mad or defend him. Truthfully I think that is because thinking critically and deeply is exactly what he is trying to get people to do.
The departure of Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report (another blessed gift Jon has given me) made me sad, but the sadness was off-set by the fact that not only did I still have Jon’s show to watch, but Stephen was going to be back on my TV soon in the form of the Late Show, which I will now be watching (sorry dudes, never thought Letterman was funny unless he was standing next to Leno). With Jon leaving to apparently go live on a farm in Jersey with his family and a bunch of rescue animals, I don’t know when I will get to see him on TV again. After 20 years of his presence on my television being one of the only constants in my life, it leaves a huge hole in my heart. I adore him more today than I did when I first found him as a stupid kid, and I will forever remain in his debt. I’d like to think that I could have evolved into the kinder, more empathetic, intersectional feminist I try my best to be even if he’d never come along, but I’d rather not think about that. And yes there have been many life experiences and many, many books, television shows, movies and articles by amazing women and men that have expanded my knowledge and understanding of the world after the fact, but Jon is the person who initially challenged me to snap out of the apathy and cynicism I was far too young to have, and find the strength to care. He ignited the flame.
I am still a little surprised when I turn on my television at night and don’t see a new Daily Show on my DVR- I think it’s going to take a while longer for it to sink in. Until then, I can always watch this handy VHS tape I made of an episode of The Jon Stewart show when he had Kate Mulgrew and Van Halen on as guests.
Over 15 years and countless re-locations later, I still have it. If only I had a VCR.
*pleaseohplease take me with you that farm sounds amazing and peaceful and I will bring my own snacks I promise you won’t even know I’m there