Friday, March 29, 2024

Jon Stewart's Daily Show Polish Joke Was Not Anti-Polish


In February, 2024, Jon Stewart, after returning to the Daily Show, told a Polish joke.
Some, not many, Polish people protested.


Their protest is wrongheaded.


Jon Stewart is a comedian. One does not take at face value what comedians telling jokes say.


In the same show, Stewart said he would welcome tutoring in how to be a successful media figure from Tucker Carlson. He calls Carlson "sensei" and "master." Stewart hates Tucker Carlson. He is saying one thing. He means something else. That kind of communication is typical for comedy.


Stewart is in fact identifying Tucker Carlson as a menace. He criticizes Carlson for not resisting Vladimir Putin saying that "World War II was Poland's fault because they forced Nazi Germany to invade."


Clearly, Stewart is horrified by Carlson's refusal to take on an evil man who is threatening Poland and currently attacking Ukraine.


Putin, interviewed by Carlson, says, "Hitler asked for Gdansk amicably but they refused." Carlson nods and says, "Of course."


Carlson's position is grotesque. THAT is what Jon Stewart is criticizing.


Stewart insists that it is absurd to say that Poland started World War II. "Poland's navy had submarines with screen doors." That is a Polish joke. It is ridiculous and passé. Stewart is saying that Carlson's agreeing with Putin's statement is as ridiculous as an outdated and not very funny Polish joke. Stewart is not endorsing the Polish joke.


In case there are some who don't understand what Stewart is doing, he breaks from his normal delivery and provides historical context to the history of Polish jokes. He is making clear that he is not endorsing Polish jokes. He is mocking Tucker Carlson's absurdity.


"Poles are as smart as anyone and did not deserve to be invaded by the Germans," he explains.


Minutes later, Stewart makes an Italian joke. He's not endorsing Italian jokes. He's continuing his criticism of Tucker Carlson's absurdities, as Carlson praises a Moscow subway station and a supermarket, two sites that do not in any way reflect the lives of average Russians, many of whom don't even have indoor plumbing.


By the way, some Poles protesting against Jon Stewart's performance make sure to identify him by his birth name, "Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz." They do this to emphasize that Jon Stewart is Jewish. In this instance, that emphasis is antisemitic. It doesn't matter what ethnicity someone is in this circumstance. Stewart was not being anti-Polish in his February Daily Show performance. Many of us got that, and most Polish people did not protest.


  1. I wondered where you had been Danusha. Clearly you have been busy writing! Time well spent. There are some interesting blogposts here. Re the Jon Stewart "joke", yes I take the point. It was actually a joke against the current version of WW2, in which it is all Poland's fault, and returning us to the original version, in which it wasn't - the one in which Poland was actually a victim of the Nazis.

    So I certainly can't take offence at this. But am I right in feeling that in previous years this commentator would have been more likely to endorse the Polish "joke" rather than subvert it? This is a genuine question as I don't know him and don't think I have read him.

    The reason I ask is that I have been wondering if the Movers and Shakers are now trying to U-Turn us. And maybe part of that will be us Poles/Polonians coming off the "unter" page? Who knows?

    But sadly doesn't that just mean that someone else will have to be relegated to it? I will really feel for them if so. I look forward very much to the time on earth when there will be no more "uber" and no more "unter". But is that something any human government can ever achieve?

    1. Hi, Sue. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You ask if Jon Stewart would have been a Polish joke teller in the past.

      My guess is no.

      Polish jokes were more the provenance of what I think of as Catskill comics.

      The type who would tell misogynist jokes about their wives or mother in laws.

      Jon Stewart is more cerebral and more subversive, and he has a political bent. He champions what he sees as David against Goliath.

      He published a book whose title, I think, was Naked Pictures of Famous People.

      In that book he included Larry King's interview of Hitler.

      clearly he was not endorsing Hitler.

  2. I think that there are deeper issues involved, such as which groups can be joked about and which groups cannot. That is, for example, why so many commentators catch heat about saying something that can be taken as racist or anti-Semitic. We see that in the media all the time.

    By contrast, no one, outside of some Poles, is concerned if something said or done is demeaning to Poles.

    1. As I mentioned, Stewart immediately made an Italian joke after the Polish joke. And he regularly performs a stereotypical Yiddish character whom some would identify as antisemitic. So yes he does joke about people other than Poles.

    2. Hi Danusha and Jan- and thanks for the reply above, telling me a bit about this commentator. So this may not necessarily signal a change in the Zeitgeist. Its hard to tell at the moment.

      And yes, Jan, I would say that the very essence of the "uber" and "unter" pages are to make it clear who must be treated with respect, and who can safely be disrespected. And of course i contrast it with the perfect standard set by our Creator, in the Golden Rule, which teaches us to treat everyone with the kindness and respect we would want for ourselves.

  3. I like John Stewart. His take on Carlson was funny and smart. I also value Danusha’s scholarly view on the „Polish joke” in the US culture. And I am the last to take offence, as I believe comedians should be allowed to mock everybody and everything, apart from people’s personal tragedies.

    And yet, this „Polish joke” left a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think it was quite similar to the „Jewish jokes” and „Italian jokes” Stewart may tell. None of these stereotypical takes is so completely negative and devoid of any redeeming qualities as the „Polish joke”. And Stewart provided context, only to add another Polish joke and make it look as though it was perfectly fine and normal. And none of that was all that funny.

    I didn’t make me feel offended, but sad and disappointed.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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