Jon Stewart’s finest moment began with a question and closed with a promise, but it’s the space in between that contains the key to his influence.
His opening monologue on September 20, 2001 (video below), the first taping of “The Daily Show” after the attacks of 9/11, was nearly nine minutes of ragged, unstinting emotion. He pounded his desk. He squirmed in his seat. He cracked the occasional joke. He choked back tears, grasped at pen and paper, turned from hope to rage to fear and back again. Even in extremis, his desire all along—at times frustrating, at times damning, nearly always painfully funny—has been to tell the truth. To many of my generation, Stewart is the most trusted man on television, because in tragedy as in comedy, he’s not afraid to break.
This Thursday, when he concludes his 16-year tenure as the host of “The Daily Show,” Stewart is sure to be praised as the person to whom his young, urbane, left-leaning audience turned to make sense of the day’s events, the 21st century’s slightly twisted analogue to Walter Cronkite. Yet for all his interest in the topical, from his live announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore to his evident horror at the lack of a single indictment in the death of Eric Garner, the comedian’s meteoric rise is as much a function of style as of substance.
With his stricken return to the airwaves that long-ago autumn, Stewart established himself, perhaps surprisingly, as a throwback: a sincere and ardently populist weathervane for the age of smarm and snark.
In this sense, Stewart’s legacy is more complicated than the emergence of a progressive comic voice, the transformation of late-night television, or the nurturing of new talent. For example, despite its reputation as a “Millennial” news source—and two Peabody Awards, for presidential campaign coverage, in 2000 and 2004—”The Daily Show,” unlike “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” doesn’t so much present information as presume knowledge; its rhythm is that of the sound bite, the talking point, the gaffe. (In his defense, Stewart has disavowed the label of “journalist,” and one need only watch his mostly dismal interviews with “Daily Show” guests to know he wasn’t being modest.)
Instead, Stewart rightly placed the onus on established news organizations to report the facts, and his consternation at their utter failure on this front traced the devolution of broadcast journalism from Glenn Beck to Wolf Blitzer. When, in 2005, Stewart famously disemboweled CNN’s “Crossfire” (video below), the rationale behind his emergence as our most trenchant critic of the mainstream political media suddenly came into focus. “Partisan hacks” Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, with their ceaseless bickering and empty Beltway patois, were, in Stewart’s view, “hurting America.” It was his mission to stop them.
Dismantling the smirking, “SportsCenter”-trained detachment of “Daily Show” predecessor Craig Kilborn, or drawing attention to servile posture of “Crossfire” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” Stewart attempted to bridge the widening gulf between the childishness of the chattering classes and the seriousness of the issues they were tasked with covering. His comments on “Crossfire” were those of a sentimentalist, a true believer in the power of television and a free, independent press, and it was this as much as anything else that endeared him to a public increasingly cut out of the process by the cynicism of the American elite.
By the time Stewart and “Daily Show” alumnus Stephen Colbert organized the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, D.C., in 2010, the satirical treatment of a corrosive political culture had metamorphosed into earnest action. Though he’s known as a rabble-rouser unafraid to rattle the individuals and institutions behind a trying decade-plus in American life, Stewart’s central idea, passed down to his cadre of correspondents and millions of loyal fans, has always been rooted in a certain nostalgia: for civil discourse, for nuanced debate, for reporting and criticism that engages and enlightens at once.
“The Daily Show” has flagged of late— last week’s Mike Huckabee/”Trump-effect” pantomime quite literally had nothing to say—and Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, plans to apply a “bigger lens” to current affairs than the excesses of Fox News. Recent reports of Stewart’s feud with former “Daily Show” writer Wyatt Cenac and “secret” visits to the Obama White House have lent credence to the notion that Stewart did not remain quite so far above the fray as his rhetoric implied.
This may simply be the sniping that usually follows the end of a long campaign, and on the level of style—from the format of fake news to the comedians he cultivated along the way—”The Daily Show” redefined the medium for the rising generation. Nevertheless, there were obvious limits to Stewart’s studied neutrality, to his preening appraisal of “media” as an ecosystem in which he did not participate, and if his defining success was to square a space for dissent against the status quo, this was as much a product of the culture he entered as the one that he made.
After all, though the purpose of “The Daily Show,” as its host once said, has been to “sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks,” Stewart understood his role as class clown to be a “luxury” woven into the American grain, an indication of “the difference between closed and open,” “between free and burdened.” It strikes me as strange, and strangely fitting, that the foremost political satirist of this troubled age should approach his subject with such sincerity, an attitude he maintained through the years even as his tribute to the first responders became fury in the face of their mistreatment. For better and sometimes for worse, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” expressed the contradictions of the country, and of the era, from which it drew inspiration—it was idealistic and embittered, patriotic and apathetic, earnest and ironic, plugged in and tuned out, distracted and engaged, sometimes from moment to moment.
Far removed from his monologue of September 20, 2001, after two heedless wars and a prolonged recession, an administration he observed with disgust and another with disappointment, Stewart’s sensibility remains, at heart, much the same. “I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair,” he said then, tears filling his eyes, and in this I suspect he’s spoken for many of us in the intervening years, myself included. He did it all out of love, I see now, and whatever his shortcomings, we loved him back.
Jon Stewart’s final episode as host of “The Daily Show” airs Thursday, Aug. 8 at 11pm.