As even the most casual viewer of The Daily Show can glean, Jon Stewart is capable of coupling wit and erudition to corner an interviewee or savage (a video clip of) a graceless politician—though he’s much more comfortable settling into the position of the bemused naif. Ignorance comes in numerous guises, and if one were to create a Donald Rumsfeld-like taxonomy, Stewart would be placed under “cultivated ignorance” (the known unknown). He’s done the reading, but he’s perpetually just a little bit in over his head, and he knows it; hell, he delights in it. That’s part of his charm.
Nowhere is this more clear than in how Stewart—born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz—approaches his Jewishness, or Jewishness writ large. Like a seventh-grade class clown refusing to learn his Torah portion, he’s ignorant of most things Jewish, and he sees no problem with that. But that is a problem when Stewart is perhaps the most famous Jewish television personality working today. He is unavoidably the standard-bearer in the august tradition of Jewish comedy, and his flag is looking tattered.
Great performers always risk falling into shtick; it’s the cost of being so good that you’re asked to do the same thing too many times. (Go watch a popular comedian or singer a few years into a five-days-a-week Vegas residency and you’ll practically see the mold on their clothes.) Stewart hasn’t quite attained this level in his everyday performance—the show is still consistently funny; it still provides an essential service as a media gadfly and Fox News foil—but he’s long run through his Jewish material.