Nothing comes to an end in television without a silly but also meaningful grieving process. The longer the run and more devoted the fan base, the louder the wails. This Thursday’s end of Jon Stewart’s incomparable, culturally significant run as the host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” cuts deeper than the usual sign-off.
Even though the 52-year-old host announced his departure nearly six months ago with a clear-eyed assessment (“This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you”), his most devoted viewers still speak the language of denial: How can he leave us?
How, for just one example, can Stewart turn his back on such a bountiful, irresistible clown car full of GOP presidential hopefuls sputtering down the road to 2016? How can he decline the juicy gift that is the Donald Trump campaign? For that matter, how can he turn away the gift of the heavily freighted, never-quite-airborne Hillary Clinton campaign?
More than any other recent late-night finale, I’m hearing from viewers who are not just sentimental about “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” coming to an end, they are gravely concerned. These are the people who have come to rely on Stewart (and his talented staff) as a trusted source of information. They view Stewart as the light that consistently showed the way out of some rather dark tunnels of despair.
Stewart took over hosting the show from Craig Kilborn in 1999, but in popular memory, he and “The Daily Show” became indispensable in the bizarre aftermath of the neck-’n’-neck 2000 presidential election – “Indecision 2000,” as “The Daily Show” dubbed it.
When the events of Sept. 11, 2001, made everyone stop and question (for a relative nanosecond, it turned out) the role of irony and snark in a deadly serious moment of national mourning, “Daily Show” viewers doubled down for Stewart’s ability to synthesize and cut through the steady rhythm of B.S. coming from the drums of war.
While half of America flocked to the jingoistic pep rallies of Fox News, the other, bluer half started emailing one another and blogging about the best jabs from the previous night’s episode of “The Daily Show.”
Leaning on the supercuts
By the time the 2004 presidential campaign came around, Stewart’s viewers relied on the show as heavily as the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s leaned on its music. Stewart and his writing staff perfected a lightning-quick ability to fashion a retort out of the day’s news. Instead of guitar riffs they mastered video clip collages – supercuts – in which a politician or a pundit could be indicted and lampooned simply by his or her own words and how he or she delivered them.
The supercut has a remarkable power to reduce partisan talking points to the repetitive ravings of apparent lunatics. It emerged as a refreshing antidote to the doublespeak and limp reporting that characterized foreign policy and war-mongering in the middle aughts. After showing a particularly effective one, Stewart wouldn’t even need a punchline. He could just smirk and throw to commercial.
In 2005, during the darkest days of the nation’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and Comedy Central hatched an ideal companion piece in “The Colbert Report,” starring a fictional conservative blowhard (played by Stephen Colbert), pretending to counterbalance Stewart’s nightly hammering of the Establishment. The actual intended goal – sublimely achieved – was to add a delicious layer of irony to the irony that was already there. YouTube also came along in 2005, deputizing an infinite number of people, many of them quite skilled, to do some of what “The Daily Show” was doing: hunting for and cutting together old news clips and presenting them in a way that could have a damning (and outrageously funny) effect when viewed in the context of news.
A trusted news source
Words upon words upon words have been written about how Stewart’s show became a news-substitute. “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was neither a parody of the newsmakers who exploited the media, nor was it only a clever form of media criticism. It became, for many, a trusted news source.
All along, Stewart himself downplayed and often disavowed the notion that his show’s take on the news was nutritional enough to comprise an entire news diet. When assigned too much responsibility for the impact of his material, he could always fall back on his role as a funnyman.
Journalists, who were among Stewart’s biggest fans, eventually learned not to feel threatened; over time, their work even began to echo some of “The Daily Show’s” techniques. Formerly staid news organizations (The Washington Post among them) gave a broader license to reporters and bloggers to cut through disinformation, or to ease up on a stultifying obligation to always air “both sides” of an issue ad infinitum, or to drop in a wry or even knifey observation here and there.
Likewise, many of our wiser politicians listened to their younger advisers and constituents and played “The Daily Show’s” game, rolling with the mockery instead of against it, which became a reliable way to project confidence.
Fed up with being fed up
Ultimately, though, no matter how much the media or the politicos were hip to Stewart’s style, they would almost always be the losers in this equation — old school, old ways, hopelessly unhip to the plain truth. The “Daily Show” shtick always held that Stewart and his viewers believed themselves too cool to be spun.
That power could be seen mostly in Stewart’s deadpan reactions to the news clips seen at the top of “The Daily Show”: A widening of the eyes in disbelief, a gesture, a heavily expressed sigh, a “Scooby-Doo”-like grunt of confusion, or a sardonic smirk in which the words “really?” and “seriously?” became a generational retort.
For a long time now, there have been signs that Stewart himself was fed up with being fed up. Could you blame him? The world never got better, no matter how many times he rolled his eyes or shook his head in sarcastic disgust. The planet is probably doomed. Fox News changed not one iota. Useless rhetoric in Washington wouldn’t and couldn’t abate. “The Daily Show’s” mockery of all this had been wildly entertaining and smart and will forever remain as a prime example of what it was like to be attuned and concerned and filled with gallows humor in the early 21st century; yet it is difficult to tell if it had any lasting effect or measurable impact.
To fall back on his own argument, wasn’t the point really just to make us laugh?
The horrors became more horrific — a mass shooting occurs nearly every day; a gross violation of civil rights spreads across the Internet; foreign policy crises morph and become more hopeless.
Lately, Stewart would admit to his audience that some of these events were leaving him with no words – or only very serious words. His sighs grew more futile. His gestures were resigned to forlorn shrugs. A former colleague and protege, John Oliver, started “Last Week Tonight” on HBO in 2014, proving that the only way to break through now is to be louder and wildly apoplectic at the world’s infinite idiocy.
We’re our own Jon Stewart
Although it is difficult for his fans to imagine a world without Stewart (or to readily welcome his much younger and entirely different replacement, Trevor Noah), I would suggest that Stewart’s work is essentially finished.
Unfurl that “Mission Accomplished” banner – we now live in a world of viewers/voters/consumers who, thanks in no small part to “The Daily Show,” are smarter, more skeptical and more able to react to news with equal measures of outrage and sophisticated wit.
The generation that grew up and older and wiser while watching Stewart can easily carry on the work themselves: Anyone with spare time and search-engine savvy can assemble a supercut or some equally spot-on sketch that is devastating and insightful. Follow the right few hundred people on Twitter and you will never lack for instant, wickedly funny dissections of the news, in real time. The language and verbal style of “The Daily Show” saturates writing everywhere, in print, online and in status updates. Look at how fast this tribe can move on issues, when motivated, whether it’s about the senseless death of a woman under police custody or the senseless death of a lion in Zimbabwe.
It may be a sappy way to send “The Daily Show” off – like Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy Gale that the ruby slippers on her feet had the power to send her home all along – but that’s how it feels: You had the power all along. You are your own Jon Stewart now.
The final episode of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (scheduled for 50 minutes) airs at 11 p.m. Thursday on Comedy Central.