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Leverett author Bruce Watson pens eBook biography of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart

  • Bruce Watson of Leverett has written a 50-page biography of satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show", in an exclusively eBook format.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

He’s become one of the country’s biggest names in both entertainment and current events — a comic whose ruthless dissection of politics has made him the go-to guy for millions of TV viewers looking for an alternative to the mainstream media’s version of the news.

Now Jon Stewart’s rise to fame has been chronicled by a Leverett writer who previously has specialized in American history. Bruce Watson, author of the critically acclaimed “Freedom Summer,” the story of the effort by young volunteers in 1964 to register black voters in Mississippi, has penned the ebook biography “Jon Stewart: Beyond the Moments of Zen.”

Watson, who has also written about the U.S. labor movement and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of the 1920s, says his latest work is not a foray into light entertainment. As he sees it, Stewart is not so much a comic but “a satirist, a pundit and a vital force for moderation and sanity” in our politically polarized country.

Indeed, he thinks Stewart is following in the footsteps of a long tradition of satirists, from Aristophanes in ancient Greece to more modern incarnations like Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, who used sardonic humor to examine human folly, absurdity and hypocrisy. Given that Stewart’s show, on the Comedy Central network, has a nightly audience of more than 2.4 million viewers, Watson says, Stewart has become far and away the most successful satirist in U.S. television history.

“I appreciate his critiques of the media and of politicians,” he said. “I really see him as a necessary antidote to the kind of craziness we see in day-to-day life.”

Watson, a humor columnist for the Bulletin and Daily Hampshire Gazette, says working on the biography was a labor of love, given that he’s been a big fan of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” for many years. It was also a departure when it came to his research: He did virtually all of it online, watching old clips of Stewart, who’s been active in TV comedy since the late 1980s, and reading articles and interviews. Watson was not able to interview Stewart — a man who is reportedly guarded about his private life — but hadn’t really expected to be able to reach him.

Watosn’s previous books, by contrast, required extensive review of old newspapers and history texts and interviews.

“They were a lot more time-consuming than this book,” he said.

The project came about after New Word City, a Boston-based publisher of electronic books, contacted Watson a few years ago about putting out a collection of some of his past articles for Smithsonian magazine. Following that, New Word asked him if he’d like to write a short biography of either J.K. Rowling, of “Harry Potter” fame, or Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

Watson demurred on those suggestions but proposed doing something on Stewart. Even with all the attention “The Daily Show” has garnered — it has won two Peabody Awards and 16 Emmys — Watson notes that there is no print biography of Stewart and only a couple of short electronic bios of him, aside from his own.

But given Stewart’s rise to fame, Watson says, it’s worth asking how it happened. As he writes, “How did a modest, affable New Jersey kid, with no background in theater or journalism and few pretensions about politics become (as Rolling Stone magazine dubbed him) ‘the most trusted man in TV news?’ ”

‘Charmingly insecure’

The casual fan of Stewart might not know, as Watson sketches in his book, that the comedian was born Jon Stuart Leibowitz in 1962 outside Trenton, N.J., and that his parents divorced when he was 10. Stewart has never spoken of his father, Donald Leibowitz, in interviews and may be completely estranged from him, Watson says: “I couldn’t find a single reference to his father in anything I looked at.”

Stewart — he would change his name when he began doing stand-up comedy in the 1980s — was “short, Jewish and charmingly insecure,” Watson writes, “like the majority of America’s funnymen since the heyday of vaudeville.” He studied psychology and played soccer at The College of William & Mary in Virginia but otherwise kept a low profile, then worked a number of odd jobs after he graduated in 1984, including doing puppet shows for disabled children and bartending.

Lest anyone think Stewart was an overnight comedic sensation, Watson notes that his 1987 stand-up debut at a New York club, the Comedy Cellar, on an open-mike night was less than stellar. Stewart cracked a few lame jokes and was heckled by the crowd, leaving the stage after just two minutes.

But club owner Bill Grundfest, despite watching this “painful death by open mike,” was struck by Stewart’s poise and unique sensibility, Watson writes, and some months later he became a regular at the club. A few years later, Stewart was hired to do TV comedy writing, and by 1992 he had become the host of his own comedy show on MTV.

Even in those early days, Watson says, Stewart “was always a great interviewer. He was sharp, funny, engaging — better than he was at doing stand-up.” Stewart has taken on a number of small roles in not particularly successful movies, like “Death to Smoochy,” and he wrote a book of comic essays, “Naked Pictures of Famous People,” that became a New York Times best-seller.

In a larger sense, Watson observes, Stewart’s comedic career still seemed “a promise unfulfilled” when he was hired in 1998 as the new host for Comedy Central’s little-watched late-night show, “The Daily Show.” But things were about to change.

Building a platform

As Watson points out, Stewart’s new gig dovetailed with a string of surreal and dramatic events, all within a few years of one another: the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the disputed 2000 presidential election, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “That gave him a platform to develop the show that we see today, where politics, and not comedy, is really the focus,” he said.

Watson sketches how “The Daily Show” became a staple for people hungry for a different read on the news and who delighted in the way Stewart used video clips of politicians issuing conflicting statements. He describes some of the more well-known chapters from Stewart’s tenure, such as when he went on “Crossfire” on CNN in 2004 and berated the hosts for their stridency and political partisanship.

He also notes the criticism Stewart has received, particularly from the political right, and from people who accuse him of wanting to have things both ways: ridiculing politicians as a comedian, but then not being willing to practice “real journalism” by asking them tough questions when he interviews them.

Stewart’s response has been, essentially, that it’s a sad state of affairs when a comedy show is expected to take the place of serious journalism. As he said to “Crossfire” host Tucker Carlson in 2004, “This explains a lot, that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”

Others in the news business have lauded Stewart’s work. Brian Williams, the host of “NBC Nightly News,” said he considers Stewart “a branch of government.” And a Wall Street Journal blog, commenting on a closed-door meeting U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had with Stewart earlier this year, wrote, “Face it, Jon Stewart, you are a major cultural and political force in America.”

Satirists, Watson notes, don’t tend to age well — consider the bitterness of the elderly Mark Twain, for instance, or the waning relevance of Andy Rooney late in his career — and Stewart has hosted “The Daily Show” for more than 14 years. His contract is set to expire in 2013.

“It’s an interesting question — how far will he take the show, now that’s he really an institution?” asked Watson, who also teaches a course at Hampshire College on the history of U.S. social movements.

Maybe, he adds, Stewart will avoid becoming bitter or stale because he refuses to take himself seriously. As the comedian put it in one of his many one-liners, “I am a tiny, neurotic man, standing in the back of the room throwing tomatoes at the chalk board.”

“Jon Stewart: Beyond the Moments of Zen” is available online at amazon.com, itunes.apple. com and barnesandnoble.com. Bruce Watson’s website is brucewatsonwriter.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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