It was too soon. Dammit, they took him from us too soon. So it was that, with the announcement that Glenn Beck would be leaving his Fox News show, Jon Stewart and his Daily Show writers took what they must have assumed would be the years’ worth of Beck material they would have in the future—you always think you have so much time!—and concentrated it into a single, dead-on satire of their most worthy and parodiable sources. (Complete episode above)
Honestly, I think of Jon Stewart as a comedian and not a comic actor, much less an impressionist. But if you’ve watched any amount of Glenn Beck, there is something uncannily lifelike about Stewart’s impression of Beck, which like most great impressions has little to do with looking like the person or mimicking the tone of their voice, and everything to do with inhabiting them.
Stewart just gets a thousand little things about Beck’s manner, mindset and delivery, some of which I hadn’t even noticed myself—and I have watched far too much Beck—before seeing them in Stewart. Not just the obvious stuff, like the conspiracy theorizing and the chalkboards. But the posture. The arm gestures. The camera angles. The sense of urgent connection with the audience (“I promised that I would tell you…”). The murmuring falls AND SUDDEN RISES in the volume of his speaking voice. That little praying-hands-quick-glance-at-the-ground move. The roll-eyes-to-the-sky-and-puff-your-cheeks move. The pause-raise-your-finger-bite-your-fist move.
I never quite realized it, but Glenn Beck has more signature moves than James Brown, and Stewart’s sendoff performance is a catalogue. But it was also, unsurprisingly, an incisive critique with a blistering point: that Beck was brought on as an ultraconservative recycling John Bircher ideas—making the rest of the network look “centrist in comparison”—but then became more trouble than he was worth.
For The Daily Show, though, he was worth his weight in the gold that you should be stockpiling with canned food and ammunition in your end-times shelter. And as much as Stewart’s impression was a takedown, it was also a perverse kind of salute to a fellow broadcaster who made entertainment from news. Even when he wasn’t trying to.