Earlier this month, on August 6th, 2015, at 11pm EST, Jon Stewart aired his final episode as host of The Daily Show. I had wanted to write something about this sooner, but honestly, I found I needed time to collect myself before doing so. It hasn’t really sunk in. Not yet. There have been breaks in the show before, for various reasons and lengths of time. Right now, it feels like just another summer break between seasons. Maybe it won’t hit me until I tune in next month and see Trevor’s face where Jon’s is supposed to be. And maybe even then, I won’t really feel it. Maybe, like with the end of college, or with Chipper Jones’ retirement from baseball, I will slowly adapt to the new reality, sinking into its new sensations, aware at a deep, personal level that something has shifted, and that both I and the world around me are no longer the same.
And something is certainly different. For 11 years, since right before the 2004 election, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has been a single phrase in my mind, all capitals, words that should never be spoken separately from one another. His crazy antics, increasingly elaborate penis jokes, and passionate pleas for more sanity in our crazed world have been as indelible and as constant a presence in my life as baseball, or summer road trips, or new weekly manga chapters. True, I would stray from time to time- both the vagaries of student life and the demands of adjusting to the post-college world meant long stretches where the show was inaccessible, or when I just never had enough time. Yet time and again I was drawn back, as water is drawn back into sea following the wave that cast it out. When home, or whenever I had stable internet and a half-hour to kill, nothing made the time pass like sitting in front of either the TV or my laptop to soak the day’s news through the healing lens of comedy.
Even though it had been an irregular ritual for much of my life, the practice became all the more precious to me once we learned earlier this year that Jon would be hanging up his chair for good. Whereas before I would often skip parts of the episodes I found boring, or interviews with guests I had no interest in, now every single show became something to be cherished and treasured. But it’s always like this. It rarely hits us how much we value something until after we lose it, or learn with certainty that we will lose it in short order.
That Jon Stewart helmed the show for 16 years in an era where “longevity” in television (and internet) celebrity is becoming a highly relative term is impressive enough. What’s truly amazing is how he, by the end, was consistently ranked as one of the most-trusted sources of news in the country, beating out a variety of other, more “serious” journalistic networks. He became a voice for the discontented in our society, the real silent majority, all those angered and frustrated to seemingly no end by the (in his own terms) varying degrees of bullshit that permeate human societies. And not just discontent in general- few would argue against me saying that he was very much a voice for liberal discontent, in a world where Fox News and the wretched Tea Party seem ubiquitous, where the only voices heard loudly are the angry, reactionary, fearful ones. And only he managed to gain a real following doing this. MSNBC is a niche organization, and hardly considered a top-tier one in terms of its reporting. Bill Maher has his audience, but he always had too sharp an edge, and more often than not came across as someone looking to score crass points for a joke that someone trying to make an earnest argument. So why Jon Stewart?
I think there are a few reasons for this. Comedy itself, when done well, is probably the best tool we have for fully processing our world, the safest way for us to hold a mirror up to our worst selves. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps us take the bitter medicine needed to creating a better, more wholesome world. It can be a safe zone, where tragic or heartbreaking topics, or extremely sensitive or divisive ones, can be contemplated in as close to their entirety as we can get in this life. So the fact that Jon Stewart was a talented comic gave him (as indeed it gives all comics) an ability to reach people faster and more deeply than most forms of “serious,” “objective” journalism.
His own abilities, of course, are only part of the story. Jon Stewart also had a truly phenomenal staff behind him. He himself has a wonderful instinct for humor and a razor-sharp mind, sure, but anyone in the business will tell you that, as far as keeping a whole show going for years on end, you need much more than the skill and zeal of one person. You need the right mix of other artists, comics, producers, etc. working with you to hone every setup and every punchline, to reign in your excesses and supplement your strengths. The final episode, where we got to reacquaint ourselves with every single correspondent that had ever appeared on the show, was a powerful testament to just how well the show gathered and cultivated great comedic minds, in many cases launching careers that have become as successful and influential as Stewart’s. If anything, the finale was more of a celebration of the institution of the show than of Jon Stewart the person.
That was clearly how Jon wanted it, and that leads me to what, in my opinion, is the biggest reason that we all came to love him so much- Jon Stewart never put himself first. He is a showman, obviously, and would do whatever he thought would get the biggest laugh or reaction from us, no matter how silly. But it was never about him. There is an earnest, genuine humility to what he does, and try as he might to cover it up with jokes, or fake bravado when taking on the gremlins of Fox News, it always shone through. Regular viewers aside, anyone who watched more than a handful of his shows knew this. Jon Stewart was always open with the fact that he considered himself extremely lucky to be where he was, that he never took one minute of his air time (or our viewership, support, and adulation) for granted.
His own constant self-effacing was proof enough of this, and the icing on the cake was watching him squirm endlessly when cornered on-air by Stephen Colbert during the finale, forced to accept the very genuine and heartfelt thanks of all the people he’d touched over the years. More than that, while other outlets like Fox News clearly made a big deal out of his viewership, and often claimed that he was nothing more than a mouthpiece for extreme liberal rage (as if that’s a bad thing?), he himself never made any pretensions that he could move mountains, or that cracking jokes would solve all the problems on which he tried to shed some light. He freaking dedicated an entire episode during his final week to skewering any notion that he made even the slightest difference in the world, essentially waving away his years behind the desk as time wasted laughing at dick jokes.
But, as all of us who loved watching him work know, that’s not really true. Watching him was never time wasted, and he has made in a difference in the world, even if it’s only in small ways. No, comedy can’t make ISIS go away, or make Putin grow a conscience, or make Tea Partyers grow brains. While it may help us process complex issues, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that we will find a solution, and in most cases solving real problems isn’t a laughing matter at all. There have been a number of criticisms leveled at Jon Stewart (and not just from Fox “Bullshit Mountain” News) that more or less say the following; that he had a chance to use his immense reach and influence to create a more reflective liberalism, that he could have been truly balanced in digging down into the shit on all sides of our political and social discourse, and that by never really challenging liberals the way he did conservatives (although the idea that he didn’t is a highly subjective one), his career ultimately ended as an opportunity wasted. One writer even claimed that he had a "responsibility" to so do, that his duty was to create a new reflectiveness in American political discourse.
This misses the point of the show, and the point of what Jon Stewart was trying to do. You can, of course, criticize how he ran the show, or argue he could have mixed criticism of conservatives with more criticism of liberals, and then he definitely favored one side over the other. Fair enough. But to claim that he somehow had a singular power and/or responsibility to rebuild civil society within American media is to both place a mantel on his shoulders that he never once claimed to have (and certainly did not want) and to take the lazy, excuse-ridden way out. The United States is a pretty fucked-up place right now, and changing that requires active work from everyone.
One man could never reshape or fix all of this. And while many individuals have taken it upon themselves to try, Jon Stewart was never one of them. He is just as much as product of the times as we are, and he sought to make the best of it. And in the end, as with all things, none of the political bullshit matters. Jon Stewart made us laugh, and he made us want to engage more with the larger world around us. He showed us true humility, and he showed us how to be passionate and active and intelligent while still always being aware of our own limits.
So now, over a decade in time having passed me by, I look back on what was. I remember the many voices- his jittery, minion-esque Bush II laugh, the groucho cawing he used for Dick Cheney, and of course, his truly brilliant parodies of Glenn Beck’s awful, awful program. With President Obama’s Presidency coming to a close, I think of Stewart’s first joke about him, way back when he first joined the Senate and even then was being treated as the liberal savior of the world. I’ll never forget my sense of smug, hipster superiority when I could legitimately claim that, while the rest of my high school lost its collective shit when The Colbert Report first started, I had been watching (and loving) Stephen Colbert and his blessed God Machine years before any of those little cretins had ever heard of him. Same goes for John Oliver, who had been a mainstay on the show long before he split for HBO to make fantastic videos about LGBT discrimination and related topics. Another regular favorite of mine- Lewis Black, now literally become Anger embodied. While all the correspondents were fun to watch, the most poignant correspondent’s moment for me was when Michael Che attempted to find the one place on Earth where a black man could feel safe (spoiler alert, there still isn’t).
I remember all of this- I will always remember it- and although I feel very, very sad, I am immensely grateful. Maybe Jon Stewart didn’t change the world. But he sure made us want to. Millions and millions and millions of us. And he enabled us to go our ways armed with the greatest weapons in the world- clever wit and raucous laughter.
Thank you Jon. May God bless and keep you, and may you grace us with your presence again soon. In the meantime, enjoy that drink. You’ve earned it.