I recently had the opportunity to read Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart by Lisa Rogak. It is, as one might imagine, a biography about the popular host of The Daily Show, written by a New York Times bestseller (for Barack Obama in His Own Words). So while it may not be an authorized biography (presumably, based on the way it reads), I expected it to be pretty good.
At first, it was interesting. While a bit dry and slightly disjointed chronologically, I learned a lot in the first hundred-plus pages. The book skips breezily through Stewart’s early work, trying to make it as a comedian, taking menial jobs, continually failing to find success. For those who weren’t familiar with the comedian until he took over The Daily Show, this biography fills in a lot of the gaps, giving us an idea of the journey, and filling in the details of things Jon has mentioned in passing over the years on his show, without going too deep.
Most of Angry Optimist avoids taking a position on Stewart. It presents quotes from a variety of people in his life, but the first two-thirds of it are pretty factual. When there is emotion, it is gleaned from Stewart himself, a character that comes to life on the page early on. The reader is apt to feel the struggles he goes through and relate to them, most of us having to work hard to try to get ourselves to a place we can be pretty happy about.
Then, around page 150, Angry Optimist takes a fairly sudden turn. Soon, the quotes about Stewart are more opinionated and less reliable. One time, the book attributes some words to “a viewer” with no background on who this person is. Since when does the thoughts of one audience member at home rate inclusion in a public work, meant to serve as a viewpoint for the larger fan base? At other times, it gives a biting bit from former correspondent Steve Carell about a particular incident, but without the greater context needed. Most regular viewers of The Daily Show know Carell and Stewart are friends, and the author hints at that earlier, but then presents this almost out of nowhere. It’s as if the writer is just trying to stir trouble or grab some headlines by including such things, which do not add much to the story because they aren’t illustrated further.
Similarly, this is when the timeline of the book breaks down, with the narrative jumping back and forth randomly, skipping ahead years, and then backtracking without warning. In one particular paragraph, it cites 2003 as a moment where things change for Jon, and then in the same paragraph, uses an event from 2002 as a detail to back that up, which doesn’t make any sense at all. It flits around from bit to bit, checking in periodically with themes that are mentioned and then forgotten about for a dozen pages. It’s hard to follow, disjointed, and certainly not a comprehensive take at all.
It’s puzzling to me where weight is given. A lot is said of Colbert and his spin-off, compared to the others involved in the show. But Larry Wilmore is only mentioned, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver gets nothing. Admittedly, Oliver’s show premiered after the original release of this book, but the inclusion of “new chapter” in this paperback release should rate something, especially because Oliver went on the air before Wilmore and shares a lot more of his format with The Daily Show than the program that took over Colbert’s time slot. Nor does the book go into much why Stewart is choosing now to end his run. It does get into the impact he’s had on the media landscape, but nothing about what lasting change he may or may not have made.
Overall, I left Angry Optimist feeling pretty dissatisfied. The knowledge gleaned early on in no way makes up for the messy, sensationalist bend towards the end, which turns the piece into a semi-gossipy rag more than an informational biography. At only 231 pages of actual text, it also doesn’t have time to really dig into the subject to figure out essential truths about him, and it feels like the author gives up trying to halfway through. Not having read Rogak’s other work to this, I’d be curious to know if this is normal for her, or if it’s a sign of how she feels about Stewart after researching him. Either way, it’s not nearly as enlightening or scholarly as it should be.
The pictures included are also randomly dropped into places that don’t make sense, but generally the author has no control over this. I understand placement often depends on the printer and production, but I wish more books took the time or effort to better control this aspect.
Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart is now available in paperback.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1250080479]