Review: ANGRY OPTIMIST by Lisa Rogak (St. Martin’s Griffin)

RogakL-AngryOptimistPBDisappointing, NYT-bestselling bio of Jon Stewart

Since his arrival at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, Lisa Rogak follows his unlikely rise to stardom, from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on to the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show, before at last landing a job as host of a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama.

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential news programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with current and former colleagues and with new material on his departure from The Daily Show, Angry Optimist reveals how Jon Stewart has come to wield incredible power in American politics and changed how the news is reported along the way.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most influential television series of the past couple of decades. Like many people, I first took notice when segments from Indecision 2000 went viral: the blend of hilarious satire and sharp observation was a winning combination. Despite the host’s denials, The Daily Show was a real force in American politics, often providing more news and media analysis than actual, professional news channels. Jon Stewart, however, has remained something of an enigma, however – fiercely private, most of us have only had the occasional magazine profile to inform us of what might make the host tick.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I started reading Angry Optimist. A quick read that, while entertaining, left me disappointed.

Thankfully, Rogak deals with Stewart’s childhood and pre-graduation years in brief, moving on to his relocation to New York and his slow-but-steady grind to becoming successful – let’s be honest, that’s really why people picked up this book in the first place. The book is peppered throughout with great quotations by Stewart and a fair few by those who have worked with him – it is the subject’s own words that kept this book lively and engaging. Many of the quotations are as funny now as they were when first uttered.

This brings me to the book’s major weakness: rarely does Rogak actually engage with the material she is quoting or including. There is barely any analysis or discussion; save for a rather clunky, pop-psychological attempt to ground Stewart’s comedy in his broken relationship with his father. Quotations are plonked into the chapters, and then we move on to something else. Rogak’s attempt at balance – to present the praise and criticism of the show and host – is half-baked, lacking any punch or proper insight.

RogakL-AndNothingButTheTruthinessThis is biography through aggregation – reading through the notes, it appeared that there was barely any original reporting conducted to write this book. In fact, I later learned that the few interviews cited were actually conducted for Rogak’s biography of Stephen Colbert, And Nothing But The Truthiness (a book that, incredibly, managed to be worse than this one). Quotations are re-used multiple times in Angry Optimist, again with no engagement. Worse yet, entire pages are effectively lifted from And Nothing But The Truthiness – with little change, if any. This was incredibly disappointing, not to mention lazy.

Ultimately, if you are interested in reading about Jon Stewart, I would recommend you hunt down the many magazine profiles. The same goes for Stephen Colbert…

[Review posted simultaneously at Politics Reader]

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