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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Jon and me by Chris Peterson SM '13

how I came to see the world


Last night, Jon Stewart announced his plans to leave The Daily Show, which he has hosted since 1999. The news shocked his studio audience and his far-flung fans. Maybe that was the case for you. It definitely was the case for me.

I was 12 when Jon Stewart began hosting TDS, but the first episode I really remember watching was the night of September 11th, 2001. I was a freshman at a new school in a new town in a new state; in fact, I was still living in an extended stay hotel with my family because we hadn’t yet been able to move into our new home. My world, which throughout my (privileged) childhood had seemed like a stable and comprehensible place, had suddenly exploded into almost unintelligible complexity both locally and globally. On that night, and many that followed it, Jon Stewart was one of the people who helped me pick up the pieces and start to make sense of them again.

I watched TDS nearly every night in high school, alone, with my brothers, or with my best friend Shane. It was the only television show for which I consistently made the time. It was a source of news, humor, and moments of zen, but even more fundamentally, it shaped the way I came to see the world.

I expect that most people reading this have seen at least an episode of TDS and are familiar with its basic approach under Stewart: juxtaposing clips to expose hypocrisy and conjure humor, cluelessly confident/confidently clueless correspondents, and interviews that ranged from the inane to the interrogative (often in the same segment). What’s harder to express or explain is the impact that watching The Daily Show, well, daily, had on me: the skeptical, sarcastic drive to call out BS, animated by an earnest belief that there is a truth out there that is worth searching for, even if you can never quite apprehend it. More than a decade (and a graduate degree in media studies from MIT) later I now have concepts that help me understand and critique Stewart’s approach at an intellectual/theoretical level (the rhetorical mode of the ethical appeal; the problematic ideal of moderation for its own sake), but I only encountered these concepts in the academic context long after they had already been baked deeply into the way I saw and interacted with the world.

Under the influence of TDS I became a news and politics junkie, taking as many civics courses as I could during the day and mainlining political forums every night. I cofounded the school newspaper (with my friend and fellow alum Dara) in part so I could editorialize on current events. When, during my senior year, the faculty gave me the award for excellence in social studies and my classmates voted me class clown, I really felt like I was developing a sense of myself. That fall, I applied to a bunch of SLACs and state colleges in New England…and also to the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, in large part because I’d read Stewart’s commencement address; when I got in (off the waitlist), I enrolled, in large part because Stewart had attended. It turns out that this is in fact a terrible way to pick a college, and I soon transferred. At UMass, I rigged up a projector in my dorm room and watched TDS while practicing guitar, and got a job for a website aggregating weird news and writing jokes about it.

When I came here, and had to learn to tell the story of MIT in information sessions, I hoped I could eventually make it funny. It wasn’t until Dave told me that my delivery sometimes reminded him of TDS that I realized how profoundly my sense of what’s is funny had been shaped by the show. I never have been, and never will be, as funny as Jon Stewart or any of his talented team, but when (occasionally, accidentally) I am funny, it is often because I’ve seen something the way he (and they) taught me to see it. When I do the best I can, reading applications and in committee, to cut through BS and try to figure out what the right thing to do is, however naive and unreachable that hope might be, it’s in part because he did that to more powerful figures before a more public audience. And when (like now) I’m painfully, awkwardly earnest in blog posts, searching for a truth we can never reach but that’s still worth seeking, I know that his voice in some way inflected what has become my own.

I titled this post “Jon and me.” This is not really accurate: there is no “Jon and me.” Jon Stewart has no idea who I am and no reason to care. There is, however, a “Jon, and me.” Because even though I haven’t often watched TDS over the last few years (because: applications), and even though I can more clearly see when and where the show succeeds and fails, his humor, insight, and moral clarity shaped me as much as almost anyone outside my immediate family. Generally speaking, we don’t pick our role models: our role models happen to us. All things considered, I could have had a lot worse happen to me.

And now, for your moment of zen, a (young) Jon Stewart introducing himself back in 1999. A moment for us is gone, but from change comes growth. Thanks for everything, Jon. Here’s to whatever you do next.