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Angry Optimist

Lisa Rogak

(Thomas Dunne; US: Sep 2014)

Wow, this book is lame. I like Jon Stewart as much as anybody – and probably more than many – but I don’t need to read a book that tells me why I should like Jon Stewart. (Hint: He’s really funny! Hilariously so in fact! And also a really nice guy!) I might need to read a book that reveals something of the man himself, a self-deprecating Jewish kid from New Jersey who grew up to become one of the most recognized satirists of our day.


If Angry Optimist revealed something of what drove him to succeed, maybe even culling from an interview or two – okay, maybe not of the man himself, but of someone who knows him, or hell, even knew him – that would be great. Or if not great, then at least it would be a start. It would be something.


Instead, we have Angry Optimist, which is very far indeed from being anything at all. This is nothing more than an assemblage of quotes pulled from a vast array of online and in-print sources, cobbled together to make a chronological narrative. This isn’t a book; it’s a Google search, written down and bound together. Lazy high school students approach term-paper writing the same way.


On top of that, it’s a hagiography masquerading as a biography. Stewart may well be a nice guy who loves his wife, kids and pets, but there’s virtually nothing here of any critical nature (apart from a few quotes from disgruntled ex-staffers, collected into the one chapter that is coincidentally or not the most interesting material here). The adulation begins early on, when Internet-quote-compiler – uh, I mean author – Lisa Rogak informs us that “the inescapable truth is that Stewart is so damn funny that even the targets of his often caustic observations appreciate his jokes and even laugh at their own foibles as expressed through his eyes.” Um, well, maybe, although Rogak provides no support for such a blanket assertion.


Soon after, we’re told that “Stewart couldn’t stop being funny if he tried” and that “he’s certainly found the perfect forum sitting behind The Daily Show newsdesk.” Fair enough; we knew he was funny, that’s why he has his own televised comedy show. Astute readers, however, will pick up on the fact that we’re still reading the introduction – we haven’t even made it to Chapter One yet – and the tone for the rest of the book has been thoroughly established.


For readers ignorant of Stewart’s life story (cough cough) the general outline of his rise will be new enough: his childhood in New Jersey; college years at William and Mary, where the sports-obsessed Stewart played collegiate soccer, a sport that didn’t care about his relatively short stature; his early years as a comic in New York; the breaks that eventually got him his own short-lived show on MTV; and, subsequently, enough film and TV appearances to lead to the desk job on The Daily Show. It’s all there, and presumably it’s all correct enough, because, um – information on the Internet is always right. Right?


The problem here isn’t so much with the information presented, as with the way it’s presented, which veers between the breathless adulation mentioned above, to a kind of stream-of-conscious blitz of facts. This is what happens, I think, when a Google search reveals thousands of interesting but tiny nuggets of information: in stringing them all together, Rogak pays a great deal of attention to including each one, but considerably less in weaving them into an engaging whole. Sometimes she doesn’t even pay attention to the facts, as she repeats quotes and phrases more than once, which is distracting, to say the least.


Despite all the above, this is probably just the perfect book for a certain type of reader / Jon Stewart fan. The short chapters go down easy, and there’s very little to cause a furrowed brow or “Huh?” moment. As mentioned earlier, the most interesting chapter here is the one that focuses on the machinations behind The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, taking the reader through a day in the life of the show, which begins with the 7:00AM arrival of the producers and concludes with the post-taping debriefing of all involved. It’s here that a few dissenting voices are allowed to speak their bit – in short, easily digestible sound bites, of course – about Stewart’s shortcomings as a boss. It’s not that I’m waiting for Rogak to dish dirt on the guy, but these comments do provide a bit of a fuller picture of the man than the author’s relentlessly effusive portrayal otherwise allows.


Looking for something mindless to while away a few afternoons on the beach? Here you go. If you’re looking for something substantive about Jon Stewart, you’re out of luck, here.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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