It’s funny, how a final episode makes us all pretty forgiving. While a critic might normally feel compelled to come down hard on a show’s self-indulgence, the fact is when we’re saying goodbye to something — especially something like Jon Stewart’s tenure on “The Daily Show,” which has been a 17-year institution of late night television — it’s like a last meal for a prisoner on death row. Let them eat steak.
That said, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” was as tight and clean as you might ever hope, saving some well-deserved self-indulgence for the very end.
The finale actually was relatively subdued when it came to reflecting on the man of the hour, breaking down cleanly into four segments. First, the expected on-screen reunion of Almost Every “Daily Show” Correspondent Ever, which spun out of a riff on an attempt to cover that night’s first 2016 GOP Presidential debate (an event conspiracy theorists, for years to come, will suspect was scheduled on the same night as the “Daily Show” finale for reasons).
The ongoing bit did feature a few surprises, including an appearance by Wyatt Cenac (who recently made headlines after a “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast appearance that threw some shade at his time on the show) and some pretty clever riffs. Those included John Oliver, now comfortably ensconced at HBO, asking, “What the fuck is a commercial?” and Stephen Colbert coming in at the very end to tell Stewart, on behalf of the dozens of people who’d just appeared, “Thank you.” That “thank you” was unscripted, and Stewart literally tried to swivel-chair out of it. Colbert basically had to shove that “thank you” down his throat. But it was necessary.
That Colbert moment was also pretty telling, to be honest, because it highlighted one of Stewart’s most defining characteristics: his reluctance to embrace the power he’d been given. Colbert using the metaphor of Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings” was a classic move for one of television’s nerdiest hosts, but it also captured how Stewart, in 1999, was a guy making funny jokes about the news in a suit… and then, somehow, became a conduit for understanding a planet that seemed beyond understanding, for many people. It was a responsibility he didn’t want, but he still bore it. And here we all are.
Though the struggle isn’t over yet. After a lovely “Goodfellas”-inspired tribute to the hardworking staff of “The Daily Show” — maybe you didn’t know many of those faces or names, but putting them on camera for the final send-off was a generous gesture of thanks — Stewart did something he’s been doing for years. Without any gimmicks, without any graphics, Jon Stewart turned to Camera 3, and he talked to us.
Let’s talk about talking to the camera. It’s something that’s as old as television itself; hell, if you get technical about it, direct address goes all the way back to the Greeks.
But in recent years, the concept has evolved dramatically. John Oliver is the current master — “Last Week Tonight” is essentially a 30-minute monologue at this point, which is amazing to behold on a weekly basis — but the idea of a person on TV looking into the camera and talking to the viewer as if they matter has a power that we can’t overlook; in large part because of Jon Stewart, who elevated the platform to a whole new level.
And Jon Stewart, in his last moments as the host of “The Daily Show,” took that opportunity to distill the message of the show he built into something very simple but special: “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance.” “The Daily Show” was always partisan and biased, but that one takeaway, one hopes, is something we can all agree on.
One gets the sense that Stewart might have wanted to sneak out the back door, as he in fact hinted at this, with one of his last remarks: “I’m going to go get a drink. I’m sure I’ll see you guys before I leave.” And of course, we haven’t seen the last of Stewart; he’s too virile a comedian and observer to disappear. But we are going to have to let him go, for a little while.
In the final moments of the show, Stewart thanked his family by name — a rare moment for a pretty private man — and rocked out with Bruce Springsteen. The song Springsteen played, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” was a relatively new track for the rock ‘n roll legend, first released in 1999 — the same year Stewart began at “The Daily Show.” I couldn’t avoid hearing echoes of the “Daily Show” theme in it. The way “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” will echo with us, always.