Jon Stewart

Not your ordinary Jewish funny man (okay, maybe he is).

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All Those Jewish Jokes

As his show's master of ceremonies, Stewart plays the Jewish court jester, offering gleefully impolite, impolitic observations from an outsider's perspective. The frame of reference for Stewart's jokes, and those of his correspondents, is often a Jewish one. On one episode, Stewart compared then-President Bush's United Nations speech castigating Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to that of a classical Jewish mother rebuking her children: "But go ahead, burn me in effigy, for all I care…sue me for loving."

In another episode, Stewart gleefully announced the presence of actor--and fellow Semite--Seth Rogen for that night's taping. With Rogen's presence, Stewart noted, "our show…will be kosher for Passover." Pausing for laughter, Stewart went on: "Is it Passover now? Does anybody know? Anybody? No? Is it Purim? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa?"

It was, truth be told, none of the above--although Passover was only a week away. The joke, though, was multifaceted: It was first a winking recognition of Stewart's place near the apex of the Hollywood Jewish cabal, using the platform of his television show to usher another member of the tribe into America's living rooms. It was, as well, an acknowledgement of Stewart's tenuous--or mock-tenuous--grasp of his own Jewish heritage. Was it Passover? Which one was that again? The one with the candles, or the one with the fasting?

Jewish holidays are a notable preoccupation of The Daily Show, which enjoys having Stewart and his correspondents poke gentle fun at the onslaught of celebrations that remain mostly unfamiliar to Gentile America. Sukkot, according to Stewart, is defined as "a Hebrew word meaning 'how many holidays can Jews fit into one month?' The answer, of course, is 'I can't be in tomorrow. It's a Jewish holiday.'"

Stewart is the assimilated Jew writ large, joking about raising his child to observe Christmas and Hanukkah before wryly noting that "Christmas blows the doors off Hanukkah." In his Jewish mode, Stewart resuscitates the kind of awkward, neurotic Jewish-themed humor associated with USY events and bar-mitzvah instructors. The Festival of Lights, Stewart observes, "celebrates the birth of our savior, Hanukkah Harry."

A Typical American Jew

Stewart's is the voice of contemporary American Jewry, his own self-stated unfamiliarity with the nitty-gritty of religious observance complemented, and partially offset, by a deep-seated sense of his own roots. The Woody voice, the Jewish jokes, the constant references to the Hollywoodization of his name, these are all witty, self-congratulatory, sometimes-pained acknowledgements of Jon Stewart's playful affection for, and occasional ignorance of, his Jewish background.

Somehow, the experience of seeing those jokes writ large, on the television screen, in close proximity to the mandarins of American politics, makes them funny all over again, no longer moldy but brash reminders of Stewart's unapologetic Jewishness (Stewart's having changed his last name becomes, in this mindset, less a pathetic caviling to the gentile powers that be than a personal foible, ripe for mockery).

The Daily Show becomes a strange inverse of American life, with assimilation taking place from the inside out. There is something truly charming about watching African-American correspondent Wyatt Cenac awkwardly stumble through the phrase "just because I'm goyim doesn't mean I don't have mechutanim" (never mind the improper use of the plural). Judaism, in Stewart's world, becomes a cool kids' club everyone is desperate to join.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.