Sixteen and a half years ago, Jon Stewart took over a little-watched show on a little-watched network and turned himself, the show, and the network into institutions. The Daily Show was born in 1996 to spoof late night conventions, but it was only after Stewart took over in 1999 that it grew into The Daily Show we know today, the incisive satire of pundits, politicians, and, most especially, the cable news networks they use as their mouthpieces. Stewart has never been a straight news anchor, but over The Daily Show’s run he became an anchor nonetheless, steadying his audience, weighing his targets down.
To the end, Stewart was performing this essential service. As has been much noted, Stewart’s final Daily Show was taped before Thursday night’s Republican debates, a loss that felt profound even before those debates had aired. (The fates must like Stewart, and we know this because they saw fit to give him Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy as a parting gift.) Stewart began the finale with a nod to this loss, providing some faux-coverage of the debates that blossomed into something much bigger-hearted than another series of jokes at Trump’s expense (though, don’t get me wrong, I would love to hear those jokes). Stewart used the debates as an excuse to introduce just about every correspondent who has ever appeared on The Daily Show, a cornucopia of comedic talent, that ended, sweetly, with Stephen Colbert simply trying to thank Stewart, as Stewart fidgeted around in his rolling chair, trying to hide his tears. Jon Stewart is the guy who has tried so hard to make us laugh that we now care when he cries.
Colbert and the correspondents are not the only ones who owe Stewart a thank you. For the last decade and a half, Stewart and The Daily Show have acted like a kind of national sewage treatment plant, taking the most fetid, dishonest, and polarizing aspects of our public discourse and filtering them into something that is, at least, entertaining. After getting The Daily Show treatment, rancorous, hypocritical political bile may still be outrageous and offensive, but at least you can dip your toes in it.
The fact that there will never be anything less than a deluge of nonsense politics and politicking for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to tackle—it could wear a guy out. Perhaps that’s why, for his very last show, Stewart didn’t take on the day’s news. Instead, Stewart delivered a speech on bullshit. He noted that bullshit is “everywhere,” before identifying its most common forms and how to spot it. He didn’t outright say so, but it was a bit of advice, a guide: How to Spot Bullshit in Jon Stewart’s Absence. It speaks to the effectiveness of The Daily Show, and also the timeliness of Stewart’s retirement, that his audience, which includes other media outlets, has never been more adept at spotting exactly the sort of bullshit the Daily Show has spent years so effectively pointing out.
Stewart’s retirement is the last of the three big retirements from late-night this year, following those of David Letterman and the character Stephen Colbert. Stewart was not quite as laceratingly original in his style as Colbert, a never-ending piece of performance art, or as Letterman, with his never-ending mordant irony, but he was more human and more humane. Once just a comedian, he has become a moral authority. We have watched as he has waded through the fetid waters of our political culture to bring us not bogus good news, but bad, outrageous, ridiculous, unbelievable, awful news that we could process without fully despairing. The fact that, every so often, even Stewart couldn’t make the news funny was further proof of his decency, his suitability as an emotional barometer. Pulling faces, making voices, screaming himself hoarse, eating pizza, getting serious, getting tearful, getting angry, Stewart used himself as a device to turn idiocy, hypocrisy, and mendacity into something we could laugh at before we fell asleep at night.
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