In Jon Stewart's relatively low-key announcement that he will be leaving The Daily Show, he didn't say much about his plans: "I don't have any specific plans -- got a lot of ideas; I got a lot of things in my head." As he said this at the end of his Feb. 10 show on Comedy Central, he raised his hands to ear level, whirling them in a frenetic egg-beater gesture to make the point, and pretty much left it at that.
There's already been some inevitable speculation about possible Stewart successors, but the bigger question may be what Stewart himself will do next. His most likely post-Daily Show career paths would seem to be the ones leading either into filmmaking, politics or journalism. Working in fast food is apparently not an option, judging from Jon's unequivocal on-air rejection the other night of an offer from Arby's.
So let's first consider filmmaking. Jon Stewart has done some acting and has numerous producer credits. Most recently, testing deeper Hollywood waters, he wrote and directed Rosewater, a more seriously themed movie than we might have expected from a comedian -- not that we haven't seen Stewart get serious before, perhaps most famously on CNN when he fired away at his Crossfire hosts.
Rosewater got reasonably warm reviews, and if any first-time filmmaker had a shot at box-office glory, or at least breaking even, it would seem to be the one with the enviable powers of publicity that come with his Daily Show perch and his many friends in high-profile places. This certainly didn't hurt the sales of the humorous books he's co-authored, but Rosewater has struggled at the box office (I've been meaning to see it, Jon, and I will!), which has got to be sobering for someone who presumably plans to continue paying New York City rents and send his kids to college. The life of the filmmaker might feel just a little too flaky as a second act, especially for someone accustomed to a regular and rather hefty paycheck.
Which brings us to politics. In this arena, Jon Stewart surely has potential. His earnest summation at the end of the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in the fall of 2010 sounded almost like a stump speech, and looked like one, too, as Stewart strode about the stage, his tie fluttering along with American flags in the breeze, the U.S. Capitol gleaming in the background.
If Mr. Stewart were to go to Washington, he would certainly arrive less naïve and better connected than the character played by that other Mr. Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the notion that actors or entertainers can enter politics is not as confounding as it once was, thanks largely to Ronald Reagan. Indeed the joke in the first Back to the Future movie -- disbelief being expressed that Reagan, known only as an actor in the 1950s, would be president in 1985 -- by now packs less of a punch line. Since the Reagan era we've seen a number of detours from Tinsel Town into the Beltway.
For Stewart the example closest to home has got to be Al Franken, the SNL alumnus and comedian turned U.S. Senator from Minnesota. I could see Stewart replicating Franken's successful run either in New Jersey, where Stewart grew up, or in New York, where he was born and has lived -- and would thus be less likely to be called a carpetbagger than two other notable New York senatorial candidates, Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, who were both elected despite having debatable New York cred.
But here's the problem with becoming a political figure: It would mean relinquishing a sizable chunk of privacy. As a celebrity Jon Stewart already knows something about what it's like to have less of a private life than the average, untelevised American. I have not gotten the vibe that he would be happy to have himself, his family or his friends subjected to the added exposure and scrutiny that would come if he were to seek elective office, much less win and become a full-fledged public official. That's my hunch, anyway, and if we rule out filmmaking and we rule out politics, that leaves Jon with journalism.
The near-simultaneous suspension of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams with Stewart's announcement has prompted not-entirely-facetious suggestions that the two anchors simply switch jobs. That probably won't work out, but Stewart has often expressed a genuine admiration for what journalism, properly practiced, can do. At the same time, he has steadfastly maintained that, unlike real journalists or news anchors, he is not "on the playing field;" he is merely "in the stands yelling things, criticizing," as he told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in a lengthy 2010 interview.
But now that he's leaving the stands, I could see Stewart getting onto the field. It won't necessarily be easy, as real journalists know, and Stewart will have to shed the cloak of comedy in which he has often wrapped himself to make clear that he is not a journalist -- and thus not subject to the same rules and standards.
Yet Stewart has in many respects been on the field of real journalism already, as Maddow suggested. He hasn't just been yelling from the stands; he's been thoughtfully interviewing his guests, from pundits to presidents, in ways that often sound a lot like real journalism, at least as practiced on TV.
So his 17 years in an anchor chair -- even if it's been a chair metaphorically lined with whoopee cushions -- has been good training, like a prolonged graduate school program, with the thrust of Stewart's thesis being pretty much what he said during the "Rally to Restore Sanity": "The country's 24-hour, politico-pundit-perpetual-panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder."
I have a feeling that Jon Stewart, with his ersatz Ph.D. from Comedy Central (and no student debt), might like to get on the field of real news and journalism, at least the televised kind, and do something to solve those problems, both the country's and the conflictinator's. I think he could do it, and do it well, especially if he brings to the field the elements of context, proportion, fairness, balance, accuracy and grit that he has so often found lacking in the cacophony of modern media, most alarmingly in TV news.
By combining those elements with his personal brand of humor, humility, humanity, sanity and civility, Jon Stewart would be uniquely poised to transform himself into the most trusted man in America, a 21st-century Walter Cronkite on a mission to re-program or even dismantle the conflictinator. That would be no laughing matter, but I think Jon would still dig the job.