Summer Without Stewart

We didn’t know if we could handle three months of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart without Jon Stewart.

As it turns out, we could.

In June, the host of Comedy Central’s famed satirical news program embarked upon an extended hiatus from his Daily duties in order to direct a non-fiction film based on the adventures of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was jailed by the Iranian government following a series of unfortunate events stemming, in part, from an appearance on Stewart’s show.

The film is Stewart’s first as director, and his leave of absence his first since assuming the Daily Show anchor chair in 1999.  (He returns tonight.)

Accordingly, Stewart’s legion of fans—amongst whom this scribbler counts himself—could be forgiven for harboring some ambivalence about how the show would fare without its commander-in-chief, doubting that it would retain its “must-watch” status in the pop culture continuum.

We were wrong to do so, and now that Comedy Central’s three-month experiment has drawn to a close, it is important to understand why.

Rather than simply suspend operations until Stewart returned, the program’s producers recruited John Oliver, a regular cast member, to pinch hit at the anchor desk.  Although Oliver had no previous experience as a host, he quickly settled into the role’s particular rhythms and proved a thoroughly able and endearing understudy.

This took some by surprise.  It shouldn’t have.

In 2010, as Steve Carell announced his departure from NBC’s The Office—the sitcom that owed a great deal of its popularity to Carell’s priceless lead performance as Michael Scott—Late Late Show emcee Craig Ferguson expounded on the awkwardness of conceding that The Office would not be the same without Carell, but also that the remaining cast members were wholly capable of carrying on in his stead.

Both of these observations were true, and such is the case with Stewart.

The Daily Show is not a one-man band—a vessel that only stays afloat with a singular captain at the helm and immediately capsizes when that captain abandons ship.

No, the show is a collaborative labor, as Stewart has always cheerfully been the first to acknowledge.  Like most any television program (or film or musical or city council or whatever), it is a team effort to cobble together every day, with each individual playing a particular role in the alchemy of transforming an idea into a product in the course of just a few hours.

The Daily Show is not merely a guy sitting at a desk, cracking wise about the news of the day.  It is a family of writers, producers, camera operators, editors and on-screen supporting actors who have devoted years absorbing the program’s essence in a manner that allows them to churn out fresh material on demand without fretting about the technical details.

John Oliver, an enormously gifted comic in his own right with a genuine interest in world affairs, may not have been a natural choice for temporary host, but having been a member of the Daily Show team as both a writer and on-air correspondent since 2006, he understood how and why the show works and could therefore feel his way through the challenge of being the guy who ties it all together.

This is not to say that the show under Oliver was quite the same as the show under Stewart.  Without being necessarily better or worse, it was certainly different.  The outfit has, after all, been built around Stewart’s unique comedic style and sensibilities for the last 14 years; the creative team’s now-innate ability to write toward Stewart’s strengths and in Stewart’s voice, which it largely continued to do under its guest host, has been paramount to the program’s success.

Nonetheless, that Oliver managed to make it work serves as a useful reminder that no man is indispensable, and that so long as men remain mortal, we should count this as a very fortunate thing, indeed.

When the day inevitably dawns that Stewart departs The Daily Show for good, we can rest assured that such an unhappy occasion will not mark the end of political comedy as we know it.

As surely as America endured after George Washington, the Yankees endured after Ruth and Gehrig, and Apple appears to have endured after Steve Jobs, The Daily Show is built on a solid enough foundation to carry on even when its current star decides to hang it up.

The show will go on.

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