I’ve previously questioned the frequency with which Jon Stewart gratuitously invokes Star Wars on The Daily Show, but I’ve never before felt the need to question how they fit into some overarching narrative. Which is why I found it so striking when, last week, he made a Dick joke that looked like this:
That is, a Dick Cheney joke. Invoking Star Wars villainy to describe the former Vice President is old helmet for Stewart, and that’s precisely the problem. Dick Cheney is unequivocally, in The Daily Show universe, Darth Vader — but as you may have noticed, the photograph above depicts Emperor Palpatine.
Cheney-as-Evil Emperor effectively sets new precedent. For years, Stewart has described the ex-Veep as Darth — almost twenty times in all. My personal favorite was when Cheney received an artificial heart in 2011 and Stewart pointed out that he’s “more machine now than man.”
And it’s not only Stewart — the meme even comes from Cheney himself! Just check out this litany, courtesy of Wikipedia:
On June 22, 2006, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney referred to himself as the Darth Vader of the Bush administration. Discussing the administration’s philosophy on gathering intelligence, he said to CNN’s John King, “It means we need to be able to go after and capture or kill those people who are trying to kill Americans. That’s not a pleasant business. It’s a very serious business. And I suppose, sometimes, people look at my demeanor and say, ‘Well, he’s the Darth Vader of the administration.'” Jon Stewart put on a Darth Vader helmet to address Dick Cheney as a “kindred spirit” on The Daily Show on January 25, 2007. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, presented Stewart with a Darth Vader action figure on her appearance on the show on October 10, 2007. Both Stewart and Stephen Colbert have occasionally referred to Cheney as “Darth Cheney”. In the satirical cartoon show Lil’ Bush, Dick Cheney’s father is portrayed as being Darth Vader. At her presidential campaign event on September 19, 2007, Hillary Rodham Clinton also referred to Cheney as Darth Vader. At the 2008 Washington Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Cheney joked that his wife Lynne told him that the Vader comparison “humanizes” him.
To be fair, there is a pitiful little band of rebels who would claim that Cheney really is more of an Emperor than a Vader. The creator of both, for one. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described a conversation she had with George Lucas back in 2009:
Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” had told me that I had gotten Dick Cheney completely wrong, that Cheney was no Darth Vader. I felt awful. Had I been too hard on Vice?
Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader. “George Bush is Darth Vader,” he said. “Cheney is the emperor.”
Her own column served as something of a corrigendum for Dowd. When she herself had appeared on The Daily Show just five years earlier, she’d been firmly in the opposite camp:
It’s just like Star Wars and Bush is Luke Skywalker and . . . then there’s the Dark Father, Darth Vader, Dick Cheney.
For his part, Stewart has made Darth Cheney jokes, by my count, a half dozen times since the publication of Dowd’s column. It goes without saying that, like Dowd, Stewart is entitled to change his mind. But at this point, Cheney-as-Vader is part of The Daily Show canon that can’t simply be dismissed with the wave of a few fingers. This is not the personality you are looking for.
Just like that time (in April) that Star Wars finally set the record straight on what’s in and what’s out, I want at least a brief acknowledgement from Stewart that he’s decided to make an about-face — and I want to see him promise to stick with one Cheney going forward. Because God knows we don’t need another one.