You’d have been forgiven, in the opening minutes of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” Monday night, for forgetting the host’s looming departure. As Stewart launched into an extended riff on “the Koch primary”—”Finally, a democratic system that removes the corrosive connection between election and voters”—the sole clue was a smattering of jeers amid the boisterous applause, a few loyalists protesting Stewart’s decision to move on from the “TDS” anchor desk. They, we, wanted more, and Stewart the showman couldn’t resist. He granted our wish and then some.
By the time he arrived, 55 minutes into tonight’s broadcast, at his own moment of zen—fellow Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen’s performance of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Born to Run”—there was nary a dry eye in the house. Stewart offered a virtuosic summation of his tenure: his deep, deep, deep bench of correspondents; video cameos by his most frequent political targets; a “Birdman”-esque single-take tour of “The Daily Show” office; and his closing argument against “premeditated institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract” after 16 years spent producing the evidence. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance,” he warned us, and he heeded his own advice ’til the end.
Tonight’s hourlong farewell thus concluded the series’ brilliant swerve away from the reams of tributes, reassessments, and best-of lists, a week cannily conscious of Stewart’s own mythos. “The Daily Show,” longtime ombudsman of media excess, turned its keen criticism inward, puncturing any attempt to take too seriously, as Stewart often reminded us, the program that once aired after “Crank Yankers.” Here was the host at his finest, funny, self-deprecating, fully aware that his reputation rests on skewering the institutions that comprise our culture—even, or perhaps especially, when the institution in question is the one he built himself.
With a few friends from the comic trenches dropping in to pay their respects, this week Stewart and his correspondents were free to tease the most familiar features of “The Daily Show” style as they might CNN’s inane obsession with missing airplanes.
One rapid-fire package transformed Stewart’s rightful rage at the hypocrisy of Fox News into a burn-it-all-down mic drop (“Adios, motherfucker!”); another cut down outsized claims to Stewart’s ideological influence by setting compilations of his various “eviscerations,” “demolitions,” and “annihilations”—of ISIS, the police, Wall Street, and, yes, Fox—against recent reports of each entity’s firm hold on power. Jessica Williams, sure to be a stalwart of Trevor Noah’s “TDS,” filed a report on a few of the 2,800 all-too-real crazies and wingnuts interviewed in the field during Stewart’s tenure: “Jon, it’s like ‘Girls Gone Wild,'” she explained, “except they flash us their controversial ideas.”
Like the “appreciation” of Stewart at the center of the penultimate episode, “A Man Who Was on TV,” the week hewed to a slyly self-referential posture, offering sharp bursts of humor in the guise of nostalgic celebration. (Even Arby’s got in on the act, running a spot with clips of Stewart’s scorn for the chain set to the sounds of “Thank You For Being a Friend.”) The result was a remarkably humble homage to “The Daily Show,” one that not only cleared the way for Noah to carve his own path, but also acknowledged Stewart’s prominence without hardening him into an idol. The man who made a career out of throwing spitballs at sacred cows spent his last week ensuring he didn’t become one.
“WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT TED? HUB FANS ASK” one newspaper headline in Boston asked on the morning of Ted Williams’ final Fenway at-bat, and in a culture far more fragmented than Thumper’s, the end of Stewart’s reign provoked a similar attention to the changing of the guard. But as John Updike understood, filing for the New Yorker
in 1960, the relationship between the famous and their fans is a
“marriage” of sorts, a testy negotiation that unspools over years—a “conversation,” to use Stewart’s term, even if it was one he admittedly “hogged.”
Indeed, if this week has confirmed anything, it’s that Stewart never planned to become “the guard” that needed changing, the shellacked shibboleth of “fake news.” The uninterrupted 26-minute segment that opened tonight’s episode, featuring
“TDS” alumni from Steve Carrell, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert to Larry Willmore, Samantha Bee, and Kristin Schaal, was a potent reminder
that he nurtured the next guard, too. The grid of correspondents that appeared on screen is
indisputable proof that Stewart remapped the landscape of American
comedy, even if he never tells another joke.
While he refused to call the occasion a goodbye, then, he nonetheless stepped
aside to make space in the conversation for the next era of late night—one in which his accomplishments during nearly two decades on “The Daily Show,” filtered through the generation of talent he trained, is likely to be omnipresent. In this, though he lacks the hauteur to match Williams’ refusal to
acknowledge the crowd, Stewart shares with the Red Sox slugger one
inexplicable element of greatness, the trust that the work is
enough. “He knew how to do even that, the hardest thing,” as Updike wrote of Williams. “Quit.”