August 6, 2015 – There’s irony in the coincidental scheduling of Jon Stewart’s last night at the helm of The Daily Show and the first debate of the GOP in its quest to return to the White House — the debate would probably have delivered great fodder for Stewart had he chosen to stay. But it’s time to pass the baton. Stewart is like a veteran whose tour is finally complete, one who’s not up for yet another war (metaphorically and, at some point, literally). If you don’t like Jon Stewart after 16 years, nothing will change your opinion now – but if you don’t think he mattered, you’re in the wrong.
Jon Stewart is so connected with The Daily Show that many forget the program existed prior to his arrival in 1999, hosted until then by Craig Kilborn. A little known show at that time, Stewart quickly made it his own and to immeasurable effect used the format as a Trojan horse for talent and ideas.
The success of Jon Stewart is a combination of his intelligence, comedic skills, the timing of world events during his tenure, and perhaps most importantly, how the whole package was positioned. Labeling The Daily Show as “the fake news” was one of the greatest wins in media history. It was never fake news, it was real news, most often covered humorously – and that’s an enormous difference. But such terminology and the existence of the show on Comedy Central gave Stewart the best of both worlds – he could dance effortlessly between reporting and satire, a standard not permitted to traditional anchors. As much as Stewart may have enjoyed his celebrity guests promoting their latest wares, their presence was almost an afterthought, a magnet for Stewart to put attention on the issues of the day. Tom Cruise is on tonight? Great. More people will watch a seven-minute segment on Benghazi.
“I spent three decades-plus doing network news but if you ask me today, what do I pay more attention to, John Oliver and Jon Stewart or the evening newscast, it’s not close,” said Jeff Greenfield, the longtime TV news reporter. “I get much more out of Oliver and Stewart when he’s cooking than I do out of those formulaic 22-minute newscasts.”
At a time when a younger generation was drifting from politics and traditional news, Stewart managed to reel them back in. A spoonful of sugar goes a long way, and some goofy impressions combined with craftily-edited montages could engage a teenager with an issue like the future of social security. Trotting out the likes of Kid Rock could summon 200,000 for a rally at the Washington Mall.
Stewart’s success is also a tribute to the quality of his supporting cast. The Daily Show was able to identify and develop talent at a pound-per-pound rate better than Saturday Night Live or any other entertainment incubator. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Larry Wilmore and Stephen Colbert to name only a few. This little show was the coming out party for all these stars. Would Stephen Colbert be replacing David Letterman if not for his time on The Daily Show which parlayed into The Colbert Report?
Critics have labeled Stewart as partisan. They are correct. He had a point of view, most often liberal. Again he benefited by wearing more than one hat – he’s not really a newsman, he’s a comic, so who cares? And by needing to address him–as his opponents have done with great regularity–they only increased his importance. If he were of no consequence, there would have been no need to mention his name. But Stewart was also wise enough to call out his own team when needed – for every expected ten slams on Fox News, Stewart would take down CNN or MSNBC. There’s clearly a bromance between Stewart and Obama, but the President was regularly skewered by his friend the comedian. No cows were sacred and that added to his credibility.
Unlike many other partisan voices, Stewart relished having ideological opponents across from him, if they dared. He welcomed them with glee to his guest chair and more often than not he won the argument. And in return, the opponent often looked good by merely entering the lion’s den. These debates were not only enjoyable but actually moved the political needle – swinging votes on the government covering healthcare costs of 9/11 first responders and changing VA policies to help veterans in rural areas have access to medical care. Pivot again and Jon Stewart became pastor-in-chief, talking us through, not joking us through, events from 9/11 to Charleston.
Jon Stewart has often been quoted as saying variations of “I’m just a comedian.” At a time when Brian Williams is ushered into the shadows for his lack of credibility, it’s worth noting that Stewart is being lauded for the exact opposite. Williams was a regular guest on The Daily Show before his fall from grace, and each time you could see how he relished Stewart’s position. There’s a reason that it is John Stewart’s set, and not that of Williams, that will be going to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Not bad for “just a comedian.” Not bad at all.