Note: Professor Robert A. Rees below offers some serious advice to the not-so-serious television personality Jon Stewart about how he conducts himself on his nightly program "The Daily Show."
Dear Jon (I hope I can call you that since we have spent so many late nights together in my den),
This is a love letter -- with a caveat.
You are one of the most brilliant entertainers in the history of television -- and I have been there almost from the beginning. I love it that you are so well-informed (and I don't think it is just your talented writers who make you seem so), so quick-witted and so capable of playing the Fool (in the Shakespearean sense of that word).
Having taught satire, humor and dramatic comedy in my literature and humanities courses over the years, I recognize brilliance when I see it -- and I see it frequently on your show.
Your subtle juxtaposition of images and phrases; your dead-pans, smirks and quizzical looks; your self-deprecating humor; your impeccable timing -- often choreographed so brilliantly that I have to stop myself from applauding -- although I also do that occasionally.
It is clear that you work hard at your craft and that you have polished it to a high degree -- and handle it with aplomb even when, as happens on occasion, you botch it. In other words, you are really great at what you do and it is clear that no one else (even the brilliant Stephen Colbert or John Oliver) can do it as well.
The caveat: I feel that all that I observe and praise above is often eroded and diminished or at least undercut by how quickly and easily you lapse into crude, crass and even raunchy language and humor.
I am far from being a prude; having spent most of my professional life on university campuses, having read widely in world literature, and being involved in the wide world of the arts, I am familiar with the catalog of coarse, lewd, and scabrous language that is part of our rich linguistic heritage.
I know cable TV allows you great latitude to descend into the depths of the bawdy and scatological, but I wonder if it is necessary for you to do so, at least to the degree that you do.
"Necessary" may not be the precise word I am looking for -- perhaps "wise" is more accurate. In some regards, you seem to me a man who may be interested in wisdom, so let me challenge your judgment in this regard.
It is obvious that your audience will (and does) laugh at anything you say. You could speak backward, upside down gibberish and evoke boisterous laughter.
Like adolescent boys who delight in trying to out-shock one another with "dirty words," they delight in any and all obscenities. But there's the rest of your audience, your loyal fans -- or at least that portion that I think I represent -- literate, liberal men and women liberated from a Jauvert-type rigidity or a neo-Puritan disdain of anything blue.
We are like Emerson, who said, "I'd rather hear a round volley of Ann Street oaths than the affectation of that which is divine on the foolish lips of coxcombs."
But we do have limits of sensitivity and sensibility and sometimes you offend them, and when you do so, it is harder to take in your incisive political and social commentary; your skewering of hypocrites, especially the political kind; and your obvious compassion for the disadvantaged and dispossessed.
That's what makes watching some of your episodes that deliberately demean, mock, and embarrass people who are the subject of your "correspondents' " cruelty (I can't think of a more accurate word to describe it) so painful.
Before my wife passed away, one of our nightly rituals was to watch your show. She was a bright, generous-hearted, tolerant woman but at times would cringe at things you would say -- as would I, as I still do.
I find it embarrassing at times to watch your show when my grandchildren are in the room. I know you have a large, devoted audience and likely nothing I have said here would persuade you to modulate or modify your style (after all, all of those Emmy, Grammy and Peabody awards!), but for the sake of people like me, I hope you would consider doing so.
It wouldn't take much and I don't think it would diminish your very elevated place in the entertainment world.
You of course have the freedom to do what you choose and we who are sometimes offended by the outrageousness of your language are free to turn you off -- but I don't want to have to do that!
Robert A. Rees is a visiting professor of religion at Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley.