After Stars & Stripes published Brian Williams’ apology for telling inflated Iraq war stories, the first question I had was whether NBC could afford to keep him on Nightly News. The second: What will Jon Stewart say about this?
For more than 16 years, “What will Jon say?” has been the inevitable follow-up immediately after a presidential debate, when social strife rips at the threads of our country, or after some famous person mistakenly sent a dick-pic. It’s an echo of a question that was once associated with another late-night comedian with the same first name. During Johnny Carson’s reign, millions stayed up late every night just to watch his opening monologue, in order to see how he’d frame the day’s headlines—from Watergate leaks to Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands. Carson’s zingers assured that a story wasn’t going away soon, and everyone—from the president to the bus driver—wanted to be able to discuss his wry one-liners the morning after.
Despite a muckraking political edge that wasn’t for everyone and the ever slicing and dicing of the late-night audience since the golden age of The Tonight Show, Stewart became a similarly influential arbiter in the court of public opinion. Time and time again, The Daily Show reframed the issues with a carefully-crafted visually-aided argument that was not only funny and clever—the priority on a late-night chucklefest—but better-researched and more insightful than anything on at 6:30. At its best, Stewart’s take on the frontpage news not only emphasized the big picture with careful consideration paid to both the past and future, but dissected where the initial hurried narrative parroted by the networks might be fundamentally flawed. I’m slightly embarrassed by the excessive number of times I’ve begun a conversation “Did you see Stewart last night?” or responded to an argument with, “Well, it’s like they said on The Daily Show…”
This wasn’t always so. The Daily Show was originally built for Craig Kilborn, who hosted for three seasons before taking a bigger job at CBS. At its height, Kilborn’s show drew about 350,000 viewers a night, and that was considered a success at the time for Comedy Central, which was pleased with Kilborn’s snarky, frat-boy take on pop-culture, best defined by his irreverent Five Questions. When Stewart finally got his big chance in early 1999—he’d been a finalist for several top jobs, including the Late Night job that went to Conan O’Brien—he steered the show more directly into political headlines and controversy at a time when the actual news programs were watering down their analysis in the race for ratings. Current events quickly played to his strengths, as the 2000 presidential election—from John McCain’s Straight Talk Express to the contested recount that made George Bush president—made the Daily Show‘s “Indecision 2000” coverage incredibly well-titled and timely.
The Bush years were bound to be a boon for the left-leaning Stewart, but everything changed with Sept. 11. Nine days after the terrorist attacks, the show resumed and Stewart apologized in advance for another “overwrought speech of a shaken host.” Fighting back tears, he explained “why I grieve, but why I don’t despair,” describing the heroism of the first-responders and tying it the color-blind dream of Martin Luther King. “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center,” he said in conclusion. “They attacked it, this symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty … You can’t beat that.”
Stewart has expressed some embarrassment and regret that he let his emotions spill—Howard Stern shamed him for it on his radio show—and at one point, Stewart claimed he hadn’t watched the episode since. But if you were in New York in September 2001, when lower Manhattan was still smoldering and Missing posters of loved ones were plastered on every corner and subway stop, his speech was a cathartic moment, just as David Letterman’s had been and Saturday Night Live‘s proved to be. It was a turning point for Stewart and his audience, in far-reaching ways both obvious and not immediately recognized.
As America mobilized for war in the Middle East, the American mainstream media went along for the ride and mostly failed in its responsibility to ask the Bush Administration important questions. That opened the door for Stewart, who eagerly accepted the comically rich task of holding both parties to account. Guests still visited the Daily Show to pitch their books and movies, but interview conversations increasingly shifted to the war and government overreach, and the opening segment was more and more an instructional dissection of the latest through-the-looking-glass media/government cluster-eff.
It wasn’t enough for Stewart to be our Johnny Carson; we needed him to be Walter Cronkite, too. Though he insisted that he was just a comedian at a fake news show, lobbing spit-balls from the back row of America, his opinion began to carry real weight. (His audience doubled and grew to about 700,000 by mid 2002.) In 2004, he single-handedly gutted CNN’s Crossfire when he visited hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson and urged them to “stop hurting America'” with the ugly partisanship that was their show’s stock-in-trade.
Increasingly, Stewart could move the needle on practically any national conversation, make any guest a best-selling author, and turn government officials like the attorney general into a punchline. For people who had doubts about the war and didn’t understand the government’s post-9/11 descent into Manichean politics, Stewart seemed like the last sane, intelligent man with a microphone. And at 11 p.m., after another crazy day of battlefield casualties or Wall Street buyouts or Patriot Act fine-print, Stewart was a reassuring presence who sent me to bed with a laugh and much-needed comfort that smart people were looking into these troubling matters. I wasn’t the only one: Stewart’s audience continued to grow exponentially, eventually topping 2 million.
So… did you see Stewart last night?
“Seventeen years is the longest I have ever in my life held a job—by 16 years and five months,” he said, announcing his plans to exit the show later this year. “In my heart, I know it is time for someone else to have [this] opportunity … This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.”
All things must end, and after 16-plus years at the same job, Stewart certainly has earned the right to sign off on his own terms. But he’s only 52, and I have this irrational feeling of sadness, bordering on hurt. I feel wounded. It’s not like a romantic break-up, per se—more like a childhood best friend announcing his family is moving away right before sixth-grade starts. Think about it: A presidential election is just a year away, and Jon Stewart won’t be at his desk as the Republican primary clown car takes corners at high speed and people start paying attention again when Joe Biden gets near a microphone. It will be the first presidential election in 20 years without him behind the Daily Show desk, and I already am dreading that 11 p.m. void. Stephen Colbert and John Oliver have gone on to bigger things with a similar brand, but it would be a big mistake to point to their success and conclude that anybody can do this. There was never another Carson or Cronkite. There will never be another Stewart. And that’s the way it is.