Tucker Carlson Was a ‘Dick’ That Jon Stewart Helped Create
If 2004 Jon Stewart wasn’t Apex Jon Stewart, he was getting there. He had wrested Comedy Central’s The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn and turned it into a cultural powerhouse. His America (The Book) was a best-selling phenomenon, Publishers Weekly’s Book of the Year. So it was a big deal when he took a cab across New York City to appear on CNN’s Crossfire, a liberal versus conservative debate show that Stewart believed was going off the rails.
Crossfire had rotating hosts, and liberal Paul Begala and conservative Tucker Carlson were behind the desk for Stewart’s appearance. Why was the Daily Show host there? Okay, he was trying to sell his book. But he claimed to have another objective as well — to tell the hosts to knock it off with the partisan debates that he believed were fanning the flames of hate. “It’s hurting America,” argued Stewart. “Here is what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop.”
Carlson fired back, chiding Stewart for tossing softball questions at guests like Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry. Stewart didn’t deny failing to live up to the highest standards of journalism — as a comedian hosting a comedy show, he argued, hard-hitting interviews weren’t the bar he needed to reach.
Whoa, Begala responded, don’t hate on us. Crossfire was intended as a forum for debate. Stewart argued that calling Crossfire a debate show was akin to saying “pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.” This was theater, Stewart argued, not debate.
Carlson wasn’t having it. Stewart was a good comedian, but his lectures were boring. Besides, his show was just as partisan. Stewart wouldn’t allow Carlson to continue the comparison — Crossfire purported to be journalism while his comedy show was preceded by puppets making prank phone calls. We need what Crossfire professes to do, implored Stewart, but it was so painful to watch. The segment grew more heated from there, with Stewart lecturing from his high horse, and Carlson begging him to be funny instead. Finally, the show’s most explosive fireworks culminated in this exchange between Stewart and Carlson:
Carlson: I do think you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.
Stewart: You know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.
Daaaaaang, Stewart! You just called Tucker Carlson a dick on basic cable!
Today, of course, Carlson is out of a job, ousted from his gig on Fox News.
Stewart’s smirking with the side-eye on Twitter, but the comic must understand that he had a role in what Carlson became. While Stewart’s Daily Show punched up at targets like Bush, Cheney and the neoconservatives in the 2000s, it also sent quick-witted comics into the trenches, interviewing everyday Tea Party types and isolating their dumbest comments for mass entertainment. It’s the stuff Jordan Klepper is doing on The Daily Show now, finding the most uninformed blabbermouths at Trump rallies and spooling them just enough rope to hang themselves.
It’s hilarious from a certain political point-of-view and infuriating from another. It’s not hard to imagine that the people who felt ridiculed by Stewart and company came to make up Carlson’s most ardent viewers. And ironically, Carlson spoke to them using The Daily Show’s own tools and tricks. In a recent CNN interview with Stewart, journalist Fareed Zakaria pointed out that the comic’s old run-the-news-clip-and-react shtick is exactly “what Tucker Carlson does when he wants to make his voice heard. He’s borrowing from your playbook.”
Nearly 20 years after calling Carlson a dick, Stewart sighed in resignation thinking about the ripple effects of his Daily Show tenure: “It’s a real delight knowing that.”