The Psychology of Daily Show's Jon Stewart
The mind behind the man behind the myth...I hope that makes sense.
Posted March 22, 2010
The following is a brief arm-chair analysis of one of the most personable and popular public figures of our time. No, that's not an over-statement.
With laughter in his eyes and a seriousness of spirit, Jon Stewart projects an intelligence and sense of purpose that not only feels misplaced on Comedy Central, but makes him the object of a personal fantasy (no, not the sexual kind). I want Jon Stewart to grill lawmakers every Sunday on Meet the Press, I want him to cross-examine presidential candidates during dramatic primaries. In short, I trust and respect him to be the filter between myself and the world. I'm a 27 year-old, relatively hard-working and studious individual and I turn to The Daily Show fervently and almost exclusively when it comes to news. It is my lifeline to the civic duty known as "being informed." And I'm not alone. Surveys show that an increasing majority of young people consider him their guide through the informational thicket of 21st century American society.
But why choose Jon Stewart? Why turn to a man for information about the world who is so laid back that the only thing more frequent than his weed jokes are his fart jokes; a man so self-deprecating that he enjoys declaring to his audience that his show follows a show about muppets?
There are many reasons. For starters, he is smart. He can process and distill a vast, complex knowledge base into manageable, crystal-clear chunks, and can simultaneously juggle big picture with nuanced picture. And yet...lots of people have impressive cognitive capacities and eloquence, and I routinely dismiss or distrust them.
The answer is that Jon Stewart also provokes trust and inspiration, and the explanation has to do with personality style. After all, every ounce of his show's craft and output is a reflection of his inner world, that is, how he views, focuses upon, processes and reacts to the outer world.
Let's take March 9th's interview with Marc Thiessen as an example. It is a particularly vivid one. Marc is a conservative pundit who, as a part of the ultra-right wing "Keep American Safe" movement, comes onto the show to discuss issues of banned torture and rule of law in the context of Guantanamo Bay detainees. To me, what is striking is not so much the back-and-forth content of the debate between Marc and Jon, but the underlying personality clash.
Marc is ball of hyperkinetic angst. He is utterly convinced of his own argument, restless to transmit his rehearsed talking points to the public, and anxious in the face of any/all arguments that question, if not attack, his world view. He interrupts incessantly and his voice stutters and shakes with a fear that he will not be able to assert his view victoriously. He is so obnoxious that when the conversational rhythm shifts toward Jon, Marc continues to talk. It's a passive aggressive ploy that looks like something a four year-old would do, right after stamping feet and plugging ears.
Jon is the opposite of Marc.
He is calm and still. He actually listens. He cites verbatim what Marc has said, he presents his viewpoint while repeating and respecting Marc's differences. He does these things while bringing levity and building a connection. He errs on the side of graciousness, and always stays polite. He profusely apologizes to a guest who feels trapped and mistreated even though Jon knows that, ironically, it is the guest who interrupts, refuses to listen, refuses to find common ground. Jon's explanations for things are always clear, sometimes startlingly so, and he only gets flustered when others express discomfort or aggression. I know my view of Jon is extreme in its positivity. But before people begin to presume that I've got some Stewart shrine in my house, I want to point out that I'm sure he's got plenty of his own skeletons and pecadillos. For starters, he could take himself more seriously. But I don't think my analysis is off-base with regard to his general psychological essence. Meaning, I'd bet good money that Jon and everyone who knows Jon would agree with me on this.
As they say in sports, let's go to the video tape for a finer-grained analysis.
View of Self
Note the subtle glimmer in his eyes at the end of a particularly sophisticated rant on, say, corporation fraud. He never fails to look into the camera with a quick but certain glance that says, "I hope you have now learned about how the world actually works. We can make things right..no worries...dude" Ok, so he's probably not thinking something so cheesy, but he does emanate this level of kindness and generosity. He is probably the kind of guy who gives to charity, who makes it to his son's soccer games, who actually doesn't cheat on his wife. Also, he lives in-line with his values. He knows that charities help the vulnerable, that athletics will spur his son's development, that his wife deserves the best. This doesn't mean he leaps tall buildings in a single bound, of course, it just means he's pretty mentally healthy.
View of things
He slows down to think. He's actually curious and open about stuff. When he has impassioned, hot air ballooned pundits on the show to argue the intricacies of economic and political forces in our culture, he will actually pause, sit back, cup his chin in his hand and listen with the undivided focus and acceptance of a child captivated by campfire stories. He is saying, "I will honestly jump aboard if you say anything that is in anyway coherent and competent. In fact, I'm rooting for it, but if you continue to act like an idiot I'm going to have to gently point that out..."
View of Others
He's everybody's friend. He has a sort of global, charismatic empathy driven by an optimistic, comfortable view of others. He chats with his audience during sporadic, random tangents, he probably gives little speeches to his staff to promote bonding. I bet he's the kind of guy that does favors for acquaintances. When a guest arrives on the air, Jon exhibits a natural chemistry in which his moment-to-moment thoughts, movements and mannerisms mimic his guest. When he shakes their hand in the final minute of the show, and leans forward for his customary whisper of intimacy, his body language is saying, "Thanks for coming. You're an interesting dude, we should find time to have a real conversation...do your kids like soccer?"
Psychologists would cite these things as "emotional, social and cognitive facets...the building blocks of the human personality." We might use labels from empirical theories like the "Big-5" Factor of Personality to say things like "Jon Stewart has excessive levels of openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness, he has a balanced degree of extroversion, and uncommonly low neuroticism..." Instead, I'll just save myself a headache and declare these tendencies to make-up the Jon Stewart Personality Type...
How might you describe the Jon Stewart Personality Type?