The Night Shift: Jon Stewart Confronts the Arizona Shootings, Makes a Passionate Appeal For Sanity and Hope

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Talk about a hard night to be a late night comedian. Given the very public violence of the weekend, and the attempted assassination of a sitting United States congresswoman, more than a few media observers wondered aloud as to how the nation’s funny men would return to the air Monday night. In the case of almost all late night shows, the incident was all but dropped from the dialogue – a downer so profound that it would surely render all skits and punch lines irrelevant.

But then there was Jon Stewart, who all but tore up his script for a show that was far more sober, and emotional, than surely most of his fans was expecting — a show that attempted to not only understand what could drive a man to murder but how a nation could find solace in the mourning, in ensuring that their deaths were not in vain. Video after the jump.

Now Stewart loves to downplay his role as serious news commentator. From his very public takedown of CNN’s Crossfire to his on-air sparring with Bill O’Reilly, he has derided the news punditry even as he has attempted to distance himself from their sphere.

He says he’s just a goofy dork on a silly network, with prank-calling puppets as his lead-in. But when it comes to events like Sept. 11, the Iraq War and Monday night’s post-assassination processing, Stewart has increasingly been turned to as not just the man to mock the absurdity of our media-political machine, but also to make sense out of the madness. Whether he recognizes his role or not, Stewart has become an influential barometer as to the seriousness of an offense (Rick Sanchez), the merits of an argument (John McCain, on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) and the hypocrisy of lawmakers (the 9/11 health care bill). And every once in a while, in moments of startling sincerity and intimacy, he has also embraced the challenge of trying to process a nation’s fear and pain.

In fact, over the span of a decade, he’s done the latter so well that we now look to him for our dose of sanity amidst the chaos:

Now granted, Stewart’s show differs from his late-night counterparts in that he’s often editorializing on timely news events, rather than trying to offer a place of mindless reprieve. So I wouldn’t necessarily expect every late night show to chuck out the script and speak from the heart – though it would have been nice Monday night to see a little more public discussion of the news that absolutely everyone has been talking about. Heck, there was a moment of silence observed across America Monday; wouldn’t it have been nice to see the late night hosts take just a minute or two away from the Beckham jokes (Conan) or the “no pants subway ride” commentary (Letterman)?

These shows are a reprieve, yes, but they don’t operate in a vacuum.

As for escaping the dreariness of the day’s top headlines, I must admit that one late night segment did the trick: Seeing Bill Cosby, still roaring and stammering at 73, made me smile ear to ear. Yes, his schtick is getting a little ragged and a little predictable, but while he was commanding the stage at the Ed Sullivan theater, I was able to forget about it all:

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