Jon Stewart is not known for letting go of things easily. Whether it’s a war waged on shaky premises, a stock-market blowhard misleading consumers, or an NYC mayor who eats pizza with a fork, you could count on Stewart to dig in with full-bodied, dog-with-a-bone passion and tenacity. Oh, and all while being funny, too. Now, after 16 years, 20 Emmys, and more than 2,500 Moments of Zen, he’s ready to let go of at least one thing. Unfortunately, it’s The Daily Show. For the millions who rely on Stewart, 52, to be America’s ombudsman, the idea of him stepping down is harder to digest than an Arby’s value meal. President Obama himself threatened to make it illegal for Stewart to leave.
But alas, the Daily hero will sign off for good Thursday night, so now we turn to the place we always do when bad news happens—The Daily Show. We asked a hall of fame’s worth of star correspondents from the series to share their memories of the man who made fun of the news—and made the news fun.
WHEN JON TOOK OVER
I came to the show at the end of the Craig Kilborn era. The show was funny then, but it was more like the punk in the back row of the classroom throwing spitballs [and] taking potshots. When Jon came in, he explained to us that he wanted the show to have a point of view. I distinctly remember people looking at each other and going, “Uh-oh. What’s this going to mean? Is this going to make the show less funny?” And of course it didn’t.
The show made a really meaningful shift when Jon took over. His personal curiosity made his interview segments so fascinating because he is probably one of the only talk-show hosts who reads the books of all the authors that come on. A lot of talk shows require extensive preinterviews, and they want to kind of figure out what you’re going to talk about in advance. But Jon largely eschewed that and trusted his own curiosity and instincts and got some really meaningful results.
The first time I met him was at the press conference that Comedy Central held to announce he would be the new host of The Daily Show. I said, “Well, wouldn’t The Daily Show cover something like this?” So I went over to Comedy Central, and I stood up and said, “Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show. In what way does this announcement affect my chances of becoming host of The Daily Show?” Jon Stewart turned to the president of the network and said, “You told me he wasn’t funny.”
It became the first comedy on television for me that was really essential to keep up with. I remember writing to all of my friends on what was then the novel concept of electronic mail that they should stay up late and watch the show because it’s really remarkable.
JON ON THE JOB
When I started, I thought it would be like one of those laid-back places—like in an ’80s ad agency, where people would be playing basketball in the halls, like in Big. But it wasn’t like that at all. It’s a real workplace, and everyone is there to work.
What you don’t see is what an incredible manager of that machine he is. [His] tinkering with the process for a decade and a half, making sure that everyone is taken care of and knows how to do the best version of their job, is amazing to watch. He’s technically incredible.
He reads every book that comes across his desk and reads them at a speed I’ve never seen. I caught him reading a book once, and he was literally turning the page every five to 10 seconds. He was almost embarrassed to be caught.
His office was really messy. Like, in a way that makes you feel very comfortable. I worked there for two years and not once do I remember it ever being clean.
He’s a mess. His desk is ridiculous.
And the dude’s got gumballs all over the office. That’s the one thing that gives me pause. How can a grown man just chew on sugar bombs day after day?
His mind is dense with thought. You know, he’s putting together a whole show every day, and it’s like, even though he’s talking to you, you get a sense that he’s also looking into the future, the past, and maybe even solving another problem.
He knows very well the social burden that his show has, the pinnacle that it’s reached. The fact that so many people inevitably do get the news from him, he doesn’t take that lightly. He knows it. He understands it, and he doubles down to make sure that he is being as informative as he can be while also doing the job that he needs to do, which is make people laugh and make people think.
When Jon showed up on Crossfire in that legendary appearance with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, saying to them, “You’re hurting the country. This is the most serious stuff there is, and you’re turning it into sort of a team sport for people’s placid entertainment, and that’s not the job”—that is one of my favorite things in the world.
And then also with Judith Miller, the Times reporter who wrote [The Story: A Reporter’s Journey]. I’d never seen him get that caught up in an interview. I was impressed because I found the whole concept of what she was doing offensive. He went further than he normally would and just kind of snapped, really.
He took it to this level where politicians have to worry about him. Everybody has to worry about him! Because he’s just that smart and that influential.
I think the most incredible things that he’s done on the show are some of his most vulnerable moments, which weren’t particularly funny. Coming back from 9/11 was absolutely amazing, and of course [his reaction to] the Charleston shootings was incredibly powerful. There’s just an intelligence and sensitivity there that is extremely rare in big personalities like that.
Like no one I know in the world, Jon has clarity. He expresses clearly how he sees a story or a comedy bit. That’s a great gift to everyone who works for him. That said, he’s always open to other people’s ideas. Best idea wins.
The show won a lot of Emmys, but the correspondents at that time weren’t credited as writers. So we never got an Emmy, which is fine—we understood the deal. But he called Sam Bee, Ed Helms, and me into his office one day, and on his desk were three Emmy statues. And he said, “You guys can each take one thing off my desk.” It was such a nice gesture.
Once Bruce Springsteen came just to be an audience member because he and his son loved the show. Word had spread around the office that the Boss had come into the building. I was walking down the hall, and through the front door comes Bruce Springsteen, and I just kind of freeze in my tracks and duck into a hallway so I don’t have to meet him one-on-one and really embarrass him and myself. Later, at the end of the night, I’m sitting in one of the edit rooms, and suddenly there was a shadow in the doorway, and there stands Jon. And he was like, “How about that, huh? It doesn’t get any better than that for a kid from New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen. In my audience.” Jon was just as starstruck by Bruce Springsteen as I was.
He’s probably the nicest guy I’ve ever worked for. [And when you’re there] you’re really trading jokes with one of the funniest guys of the past 20 years.
Whatever room he’s in, inevitably he’s the smartest guy in the room, and when you’re pitching something to him, he’ll always sit there like a Zen master chewing on a wad of gum. Those wads of gum belong in the Smithsonian, because I think that there are more kernels of brilliance in the wads of spittle in that gum than most of us have creatively in a lifetime.
I always felt like he farmed out the funny. You know, if there was a chance for me to be funny, he was like, “Great, you say that.” He just allowed people to flourish. I had just left Saturday Night Live and when I got to The Daily Show it just felt like he was on my side. I got the impression he wanted me to succeed, and then I wanted to succeed for him. That’s good leadership.
Jon is one of those guys that is surgical with jokes, and he gives notes in a way that, sure, you might be bummed because you have to take apart the piece you’ve been working on, but he’s right. It’s hard for a boss to do that and not leave the room with everyone hating him.
I’ll tell you one thing: Jon does not think about his own legacy. Jon’s constant emphasis is: What are we doing today? What’s the work that we’re going to do today? But the truth is, the vision that he brought to the show made it profoundly influential, not just in comedy and for a generation of people who work in comedy but also on social commentary and how news is covered. Anyone who says that’s not his legacy is an imbecile, and even his detractors would have to acknowledge that’s true.
He single-handedly revived satire in our culture as something really, truly meaningful. It wasn’t around for a long time, and now it has become a mainstay of our political dialogue.
People feel like they have Jon in their living room every night, like they’ve found a friend who makes them laugh through times that can be difficult and complicated and sometimes just naturally hilarious and insane. And every night Jon shows up for them, whether it’s something complicated and dark or whether it’s just, like, a fart or dick joke, you know? Every day. And I think that he’s going to leave behind a lot of people who have made him their friend.
To be able to be silly and make poignant remarks at the same time, that’s all Jon. I don’t think there’s been too many voices like him. It’s really changed the shape of late-night—you can see it now with John Oliver stepping up. Stewart’s influence is ridiculous. It’s changed the way people look at late-night.
He’s such an influential presence in my life. It’s hard to overstate—I left my country for that man! I don’t live in the country I was born in because of him. He is the high-water mark for this kind of comedy on TV. We’ve seen something pretty incredible—we’ll never see this again.
I think in many ways, Jon Stewart is my generation’s Dan Rather. My generation’s Tom Brokaw. My generation’s Peter Jennings. And that says a lot about my generation, but it also says a lot about the world.
Dave Chappelle once said that greatness is measured by when everything before you seems obsolete and everything after you bears your fingerprints. I think when he rejiggered the show post-9/11 and made it really politically edgy, he set the bar for a lot of political satire in these types of programs around the world. And all of us bear his fingerprints.
I mean, Jon should be on the Mount Rushmore of comedy. They have to make a little more room up there, but I think for my money, [he should be] next to Pryor and…well, you know what? In the space where they’re taking down Cosby’s face, they can put up Jon’s face.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1375, available for immediate purchase here. For much, much more from Stewart’s former correspondents on Stewart’s legacy, see below.