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'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart': A series in review

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Brad Barket/AP file

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” says Jon Stewart. “It’s another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of an entertainment host. And television is nothing if not redundant.”

That was on September 20, 2001. Stewart was talking about September 11, nine days late, right on time. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was never entirely daily, and it never bothered to rat-race towards immediate commentary. Besides the occasional Election Day, Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters In New York operated on a tape delay from a few hours before live — which didn’t matter at all, in the long-ago days when comedy writers had a full day after a presidential debate to invent whatever we used to call memes.

Jon Stewart left The Daily Show on Thursday. Pick your anecdote, it’s been digested. Stewart ending Crossfire singlehandedly, in slow motion, his only weapons his perfect beautiful laser-chop words. Stewart versus Jim Cramer somehow symbolizing everything America wanted to say versus Wall Street. Stewart and Fox News: Grab one episode from the past 16 years, you’ll find something. Sooner or later, every serious conversation about Jon Stewart and The Daily Show will a least mention his first performance after 9/11. Stewart in that moment is emotional, and moving, and thoughtful, and wry. Funny, too. Non-partisan — unless it’s partisan to mention Martin Luther King, Jr. (Maybe it is; America is weird.)

But the telltale moment happens right at the top. Stewart is sorry to be there. He knows that he’s just another so-called entertainer on a supposedly entertaining show. He’s on television. He’s probably redundant. He is self-aware. (The ’90s just ended, after all.) But he’s getting paid to talk. Maybe something will happen, if he tries to say something good.

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Stewart’s last Daily Show was the last last in a sudden, unexpected, maybe overdue series of lasts. The history of late-night television is a history of people — men, usually — getting jobs and keeping them forever. But: Jay Leno’s Tonight Show ended in February 2014, and then The Colbert Report ended one day before Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show in December. Don’t forget Chelsea Lately, ending a respectable 7-year run last summer. And there was Letterman, who left us in May: Not with a bang, arguably with a whimper. But maybe this whole phase is a phase of Ending.

The last time people really cared about late-nght TV — the last time late-night TV was a thing you had to watch on television, but also the first time late-night TV was a thing you had to watch first thing next morning — was January 2010, when NBC declared war on Conan O’Brien and everyone else declared war on NBC. “Please don’t be cynical,” said O’Brien, on his last show, Jan. 22. “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get,” he said. “But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Did Jon Stewart get exactly what he thought he was going to get? He inherited The Daily Show secondhand. He wanted you to remember that, watching his last show; he brought back Craig Kilborn, briefly but firmly, a pre-taped segment with the “Senior Previous Daily Show Host Correspondent.” The show was two and half years old when he took over in 1999. On September 20, 2001, he says — off the cuff, or maybe just shockingly in tune with the universe — “Our show has changed. I don’t doubt that. What it’s become, I don’t know. ’Subliminable’ is not a punchline anymore. One day, it will become that again. And … and … lord willing, it will become that again. Because it means we will have ridden out the storm.”

Smash Cut: 14 years later, almost. “Subliminable” is funny again, kind of, if you remember the context, which maybe you won’t. Jon Stewart starts his last Daily Show promising that they will spend the entire evening on coverage of the Republican National Debate. (Impossible, we all know, since the debate just happened.) There are the current correspondents: Jessica Williams, Hasan Minhaj, Jordan Klepper. But that won’t do: Three correspondents, to cover 57 Republican Presidential Candidates? Suddenly, there’s Aasif Mandvi, and Al Madrigal, and John Hodgeman, and Lewis Black, and Kristen Schaal, and Samantha Bee, and …

Well, Jesus, everyone. People you loved on The Daily Show and people who you love so much in other things that you actually forgot they were on The Daily Show. Josh Gad and Michael Che, Rob Corddry and Brother Nate, Jason Jones and Rob Riggle, Carells Steve and Nancy. Olivia Munn, why not. The correspondent parade on Stewart’s final Daily Show was a feast for people who groove on showbiz-comedy mythology, a profound argument for The Daily Show to get its own Live From New York. Look, there’s Wyatt Cenac, pointedly not talking about that thing we don’t really want them to talk about. Holy Hannah, there’s John Oliver, making self-effacing gags about endless commercial-free soliloquies. Look, there’s Ed Helms, star of Vacation and many things in the future that hopefully won’t be Vacation!

I was looking at Helms and thinking to myself: “Jesus, his hair looks perfect.” And right then, Helms came up with the gag about him and John Slattery and Denzel Washington and Paul Rudd in the Club for Men Who Get More Distinguished And Handsome As They Age. There’s self-awareness, and then there’s just plain being two steps ahead of everyone watching. Was there anyone missing from that Correspondent Orgy? Sure: Rachael Harris, Beth Littleford, Demetri Martin. (Someone is outraged, somewhere.) Did someone get shortchanged? Sure: I could’ve used more Samantha Bee, my pick (and probably your pick) for Best Correspondent To Never Get Her Own TV Show (Yet.)

The last one had to be Colbert. This was fate: After all, Colbert’s show ended, brilliantly, with a toss back to Stewart, as if the whole nine-year sequence of Colbert Report satire-cartoon brilliance was just an extended segment broken off the mothership series. (“Thanks for that Report, Stephen,” said Jon Stewart, the grinning Journey to Colbert’s Sopranos.) Colbert was in character — he likes Tolkien, have you heard? — until he wasn’t. Stewart threw to commercial, but Colbert held the camera on them. “All of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years,” he said, “We are better people for having known you.” Before the cut to commercial, we saw all the correspondents hug Stewart. I think he cried during the commercial break; he was almost crying the rest of his show.

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Stewart wanted us to know the people who worked on his show. Letterman did, too: In his last show, he gave a shout-out to everyone, even the people inside the control room he had never been inside of. Stewart did it better, or maybe he just cared enough to make it a thing: An extended Goodfellas homage, complete with a fake single-take camera and “Then He Kissed Me” playing on the soundtrack and just when you’re saying to yourself that this is really too much of a Scorsese riff, why, there was Martin Scorsese, yelling that Stewart would hear from his lawyers.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was topical, incisive, relentless, fearless, maybe sad in the macro, definitely thrilling in the micro. Jon Stewart’s last Daily Show was, for the most part, the TV equivalent of the Acknowledgements section at the end of a very long book. What a book! What acknowledgements! Stewart and his writers saved the political stuff for the penultimate episode. Stewart talked about ISIS, and racism, and the American financial industry, and Fox News, and the Mets; he concluded that everything was worse than when he started the show, besides the Mets.

This was a classic Daily Show gag: He wasn’t just talking about those topics, he was talking about how the media talks about those topics. An added turn of the Mobius Strip: He was talking about how the media talks about The Daily Show talking about those topics. Jon Stewart eviscerates [blank]. Jon Stewart tears apart [blank]. Jon Stewart rips [blank] a new ass[blank]. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s subject wasn’t just the media, but boy, the light it could shine on the media was bright, and burning, and unyielding. Don’t kid yourself that our next media age is any better, or not worse: Hyperbole gets clicks.

But there was a moment in the penultimate episode that gave me pause. “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started!” said Stewart. “Have I caused this?”

Is this true? Reply hazy: Ask again one century hence. More importantly: Does Stewart actually think this could be true? I wonder. To say that The Daily Show was “influential” is like saying: People really dug it when the wheel got invented. When Stewart started on The Daily Show, Comedy Central was a cable channel that played to the youth demographic because no other demographic paid attention. The President of the United States came to The Daily Show, thanks to Jon Stewart. I wonder if Stewart thinks he earned that; I wonder if he worries that he lowered politics to his level. I wonder if that’s why Stewart’s farewell was so uniquely democratic, so self-effacing, so utterly and lovingly unwilling to pretend towards self-importance.

But Whatever: The world is better because The Daily Show with Jon Stewart existed. Disagree? Come on, guy: In Stewart’s final benediction, he said “Dostoevsky” and “Prima Nocta” and “Meek Mill” in the same minute. He talked about Dodd-Frank, and he tried to teach us a few final lessons about bulls—. It comes in many disguises, was the ultimate point: Beware of anything called “Patriot,” and beware of anything confusing enough to make you bored. Stewart refused to say goodbye. “Nothing ends,” he said.

I was reminded — briefly — of a panel from the end of Watchmen. A superhero named Adrian has killed most of Manhattan for the greater good of the human race. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?” he asks Dr. Manhattan, serene-wry blue-man supergenius. “It all worked out in the end.”

Dr. Manhattan grins: “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” And then he disappears, forever.

Stewart didn’t disappear. He said: “I’m gonna go get a drink.” And then came Springsteen, and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and finally “Born to Run.” Every late-night host needs a farewell song, apparently. Leno and Garth Brooks; Letterman and Foo Fighters; Ferguson and his ineffably insane-o Ferguson-esque “Bang Your Drum” montage; Colbert and his ineffably Colbert-esque chic-celebity “We’ll Meet Again” sing-along; O’Brien at his last show, playing guitar behind Will Ferrell on “Free Bird.”

Is it wrong to rank those final-act music numbers? Is it right to put Stewart-Springsteen at the top? “Born to Run” is the only song in that batch I really want to sing along to. And there onstage was Little Steven: He was in the Sopranos series finale, but only Stewart’s finale let him play guitar. And there was Max Weinberg, a veritable late-night finale regular after O’Brien’s Tonight Show. And as wonderful as Colbert’s celeb get-together was, this was a party populated entirely by people who mattered to the show in question. Look closely: Isn’t that John Hodgeman, recording Springsteen on his smartphone? Is that Mo Roccca? Who is Jon Stewart hugging? Who isn’t Jon Stewart hugging? “Thank you,” he said. “Good night.” Then the credits rolled; Chris Hardwick was there, saying something; the world belongs to his kind, now.

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After I watched Jon Stewart’s last Daily Show, I watched his opening monologue from September 20, 2001. Full disclosure, in the interest of avoiding inadvertent bullshit: I cried. I was a teenager the first time I watched The Daily Show. I watched it in college. I watched it on election nights. I watched whatever we thought old media was circa 10 years ago suddenly figure out that Jon Stewart was beating all of them in the Who’s-The-Next-Cronkite Sweepstakes. I watchedThe Daily Show when Colbert was the hot new thing on the block. I watched when Stewart had his first (disappointing, boring) interview with Obama. I watched when Stewart spent almost half his Daily Show tenure making dark, smart, sad, complex commentary out of the Obama era — commentary that was never quite as sexily dangerous as the commentary that poured out of him during the Bush era. I remember how defeated Stewart looked on election night, 2004. I can’t get over how defeated Stewart looked on Wednesday, when he said that line that was supposed to be a joke: “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started!”

The world gets better; the world gets worse. When Stewart started on The Daily Show, there were no reality shows about transgender women, no black presidents. No epidemic of unarmed black people killed by police and/or no extensive media reporting about unarmed black people killed by police. The way we talk about things now is the way The Daily Show talked about things: The event, and the coverage of the event. The facts, and how the media doesn’t report them.

There’s a moment in Stewart’s Sept. 20 monologue that haunts me. He’s talking about 9/11. (It’s at 4:40.) He’s starting to cry. He mentions that one of his first memories is of Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot. He says: “I was 5.” He says: “If you wonder if this feeling will pass … uh …” He trails off, maybe not sure what he’s going to say next. There’s a long pause. Then suddenly he takes a left turn into his memory of the day  — a school in Trenton, cottage cheese under the desks.

It’s funny, but from the remove of 14 years, you circle back to that one line. “If you wonder if this feeling will pass …” What feeling? Like the world is ending? What if I do wonder that? Will it ever pass?

I think that feeling never quite passed for Stewart. Not during Obama; not during Bush; not during all the presidents and politicans and sundry bulls—-ers who cropped up on the American landscape over the last 16 years; maybe not for one moment from the time he was five years old in Trenton until right now, circa 2015, a millionaire currently unemployed.

Maybe that feeling never passed for any of us. Maybe that’s why we’re so apocalyptic. Or maybe that’s just life. “Nothing ends,” Stewart said. “It’s just a continuation. It’s a pause in the conversation.” Love him, hate him, feel like he peaked ten years ago, whatever: You hope the conversation will start up again, somehow, eventually. The silence is deafening.

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