Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: 'Angry Optimist' by Lisa Rogak

“The only things I am able to do, I am able to do here.”

Jon Stewart has been lucky. He was able to move up through the entertainment industry, step by step, seemingly without setbacks, controversy or tragedy. He went from standup to tv to film to books, and now film directing. He got gigs and parts seemingly effortlessly. He didn’t have to sleep in his car or spend time in jail or rehab. About the lowest he fell was having to share a Manhattan apartment with Anthony Weiner. He developed his verbal talent because he is short (ish).

His biography is a straightforward narrative, revealing not that much, and focusing on the Daily Show, which made him a household name. His great contribution to entertainment is to look at the news as a sitcom: “I can’t wait to find out what’s happening with my favorite characters. Like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry they dropped Saddam Hussein from the show. Oh, they’re bringing him back!’” 

He has also changed the way young Americans look at the news. Far too many consider the Daily Show their primary source for news. Yet it is (proudly) fake. Not original, not journalism, and certainly not thorough. It is made for laughs, and that’s apparently how Americans want their news delivered these days.

This has given Stewart popularity and power well beyond those of a mere comedian. Politicians line up to be skewered in interviews. Scientists say it the only vehicle for them to get their data and theories out. On the darker side, Stewart got Rick Sanchez of CNN fired after belittling him so much on air that Sanchez fired back and overreacted – also on air. The irony is that as much as Stewart dislikes CNN, “You’re the one I liked.” It was all part of the greater joke, you see.

The high point of the book came with his stunningly unique wedding proposal, which I will not spoil.

Lisa Rogak seems to have had some difficulty fleshing out this biography. It’s only 161 pages, but it manages to repeat itself often. She tells us at least five times that Stewart does not participate in the nightlife of New York. He goes straight home and stays there. At first, watching Knicks games alone. These days, to be with his wife, two children and three rescue dogs. Same with title quote above. Stewart says this is all he ever trained for and is grateful someone lets him do it without oversight. But it doesn’t have to be said four times. She also likes to begin new chapters with the last sentence of the previous one.

Jon Stewart is an important cultural figure. He deserves a thorough appreciation. Until that time, Angry Optimist is the best source. 

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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