Last night marked the end of Jon Stewart’s 16-year tenure on “The Daily Show.” By all accounts, it was a funny, touching send-off to one of the best and most important voices in comedy in the last decade. Just about every correspondent going back to Indecision 2000 came back to say their goodbyes to Stewart, everyone from Matt Walsh and Steve Carell to Rob Riggle and Olivia Munn (even Wyatt Cenac showed up with, for my money, a genuinely sweet bit that acknowledges the rift between them, and moves past it, for better or worse). Stephen Colbert gave a moving unscripted speech about how much he meant to everyone who’s ever worked for him. Stewart thanked the behind-the-scenes crew in an elaborate “Goodfellas” parody, with a hilarious Scorsese cameo to boot. Then, Stewart gave a final speech and said his goodbyes. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Born to Run.” Everyone danced. Cue credits. Cut to black.
There’s nothing I can add to the barrage of tributes to Stewart’s time on “The Daily Show” that wouldn’t seem redundant. Everything true and worthwhile has already been said about him in the months leading up to this departure by writers more articulate than me. But speaking as a member of the holy goddamn Millennial generation that Jon Stewart supposedly taught how to think, I think it’s fitting to say something that both dials down the hyperbole of his departure and accurately describes his legacy (at least for me).
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I started watching “The Daily Show” during Indecision 2004. (My OG “Daily Show” correspondents team was Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, and Samantha Bee.) I was 11 or 12 years old, and it was right around the time that every left-leaning human being in America was losing their mind as it became clearer that Bush was going to beat Kerry and win a second term. At that moment in time, the persistent cliché was true: Stewart did seem like the only guy on TV actually making sense and calling politicians out on their bald hypocrisy and factual manipulation. (It’s important to note that he definitely wasn’t the only guy doing this, but it certainly seemed that way.) He kept rubbing his audiences’ faces in shit and yelling, “See?” over and over again while cracking wise about the absurdity of the system. Since then, I watched “The Daily Show” live (yes, live) almost every night for eight to nine years. Despite what political and media commentators have said again and again, I didn’t get my news exclusively from Jon Stewart, but he was the first guy I checked out for many, many years. I only started tuning out of “The Daily Show” roughly two years ago when there was yet another turnover in correspondents and it seemed like Stewart had finally completed the transition from wide-eyed bemused clown (in his best moments, he had one of the best, “Can you believe this?” faces in show business) to embittered cynic who seemed like he couldn’t stomach another Fox News clip anymore. Not that I could blame him. Can you imagine living and breathing partisan garbage for that long and still retaining your sense of humor?
But last night when Stewart gave his uncensored “Bullshit is everywhere” speech, it did remind me that his long-lasting impact won’t be that he “changed the media landscape” (sort of, but not really) or he “made politics entertaining” (like they weren’t already entertaining) or that he “inspired a younger generation to pay attention to politics” (maybe, but still a suspicious claim that no amount of polling can truly prove), but that he preached the twin values of skepticism and irony at a time when crowd-following and dubious earnestness reigned supreme. I can’t speak for anyone else my age, nor would I want to, but if Stewart taught me anything worth a damn it was to question everything, to never whole-heartedly accept anything an authority figure tells you, and to respond to bullshit with sarcasm, wit, and just the right amount of ironic detachment. He was the guy who said four nights a week, “Hey, the world is a fucked-up place filled with many terrible people who have a vested interest in lying to you” at a time when I absolutely needed to hear that, but he also argued that the best way to fight against that ugly reality was to do research, make arguments, and tell a joke all at the same time. “The Daily Show” went through plenty of ups and downs over the years. They missed the mark every now and again, and arguably the show lost much of its momentum and consistency after Obama got elected, but it’s amazing that that lesson, no matter how trite and obvious it may be, never lost its luster.
“The best defense against bullshit is vigilance,” said Jon Stewart at the end of his speech last night. “If you smell something, say something.” It’s funny that Stewart devoted time to explicitly stating what was the unofficial modus operandi of the entire venture. But you know what? It was still nice to hear.