As Jon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show last week, media coverage of his departure made frequent reference to the “Moment of Zen” that closed out the show. Rolling Stone ran the story “Jon Stewart’s Final ‘Daily Show’: Our Moment of Zen,” the Huffington Post went with “Jon Stewart’s Final ‘Daily Show’ Was Your Ultimate Moment of Zen,” and Grantland used “Moment of Zen: Jon Stewart’s Perfect Goodbye.” Comedy Central included the phrase in the full-page ad they bought in the Sunday Times before Stewart’s final show:
As even casual viewers of The Daily Show know, the “Moment of Zen” is a brief, often absurd episode that concludes the show. It has been a recurring segment since the Craig Kilborn era (1996-98), as seen in this video of Saddam Hussein swimming from his penultimate episode:
Stewart-era Moments of Zen were similar, and often depicted political figures and celebrities doing and saying ridiculous things. This montage of moments from March, 2013 includes Megyn Kelly’s befuddlement with the word “sequester,” Joe Biden repeating “Buy a shotgun!” and the actress Piper Perabo responding to fitness guru Richard Simmons’s hijinks on Access Hollywood.
The “Moment of Zen” has become one of the most widespread references to Zen in contemporary American pop culture, but as always I’m interested in the question, “Why Zen?” According to a blog post from 2012, Daily Show writer Paul Mercurio explained in a podcast that the Moment of Zen was inspired by CBS Sunday Morning’s “Moment in Nature,” a brief clip of animals or landscape without voiceovers or other audiovisual additions. This morning’s clip featured wildflowers:
The Daily Show‘s Moment of Zen thus began as an ironic, basic cable twist on an old network standby: with all of Zen’s connotations of calm, nature, and contemplation, a “Moment of Zen” should look like a “Moment in Nature,” right? Yet this is not just a simple snarky inversion. The Daily Show‘s Moments of Zen also appeal to an image of Zen that many of its viewers would probably know. Our old friend D.T. Suzuki was very influential in presenting Zen as a kind of pure experience that transcended logic and rationality. He found support for this image in kōans and legends about Zen masters’ behavior in which they utter apparent non sequiturs and do things like cut cats in two. Along these lines, the “Moment of Zen” is Zen because it doesn’t make sense, thereby turning a pundit’s in(s)ane ramblings into the inscrutable speech of a true Zen master, and vice versa. At the same time, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show often used its “Moments of Zen” to critique the vapidity of political discourse, celebrity culture, and 24-hour news channels. We could read Moments of Zen as ironically highlighting the gulf between a “real” Zen master and, say, Donald Trump.
Like other such uses of Zen, The Daily Show‘s “Moments of Zen” inflate the term: if anything can be a Moment of Zen, Zen loses its religious and historical specificity. Even if most people who knew about this segment didn’t consciously link it to Zen Buddhism, the “Moment of Zen” still draws on viewers’ existing associations with Zen and forges new ones. In this case, the meanings Zen takes on might be more politically engaged than with most Zen commodities.