Probably the biggest misconception about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is that it’s a satire of the daily news.
It’s not. It’s a satire of news outlets and the comically inept ways in which they operate.
This has always and forever been the case with Stewart’s program, as it was for his predecessor, Craig Kilborn. From the first, the whole idea of The Daily Show was to lampoon and exaggerate how America’s supposedly legitimate news sources—be they newspapers, TV networks or Internet sites—tend to neglect or abuse their most basic and sacred obligation of keeping American citizens informed about what’s going on in the world, all the while distinguishing what’s important from what’s not.
As for the news itself—local, national or global—well, that’s but a secondary concern in this scheme. It’s the grist in Comedy Central’s mill of silliness. While it has certainly helped that current events have managed to be so utterly ridiculous over the past 16 years, keeping our leaders honest is not The Daily Show’s core competence. As Stewart himself has said, that particular responsibility lies solely with the American media that presumes to take this stuff seriously. Stewart’s job is merely to illustrate how depressingly often they fail.
Of course, as everyone knows, this arrangement is all strictly theoretical. From the moment in 2004 when Stewart turned up on CNN’s Crossfire and called its hosts “partisan hacks” who are “hurting America,” The Daily Show has increasingly—if unintentionally—assumed the status of a news program in its own right. Poll after poll has shown that, as a TV personality, Stewart is as trusted as the likes of Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and every other talking head who fancies himself a newsman. Sometimes he even tops the list.
What is more, Stewart’s would-be counterparts have long bought in to this topsy-turvy reality, treating him as their moral equal or, in the case of Fox News, attacking him as if he were any other member of their small-screen political scrum.
It’s a shame, in a way, that Stewart’s program has amassed such a wealth of respectability among its viewers—particularly those within the journalism profession—since it more-or-less proves that Stewart has been right all along about our national news-reporting apparatus being a giant blithering travesty.
Indeed, even apart from the implications about American journalism, it’s always dangerous for a decidedly countercultural figure to become mainstream. If the whole premise of being a vulgar, tomato-throwing court jester is that you are a shunned, powerless outsider, how do you retain your identity and street cred once you get accepted into polite society? How do you avoid selling out or becoming neutered?
In fact, Jon Stewart has avoided this horrid fate, and I would attribute it to two critical factors. First, as a writer and producer, he understands the mind of his audience enough to know when his shtick is no longer working and has the wherewithal to self-correct, if necessary.
Second, and most importantly: He was never that edgy in the first place.
We may have this vision of Stewart as some kind of subversive, Earth-scorching renegade. In fact, he is exactly what he’s always been: an old-fashioned Jewish vaudevillian with a rubber face and a bottomless supply of 1980s pop culture references. A sharp, amiable failed movie actor who happens to possess a supersized interest in current affairs and a ferocious desire for social justice.
As a comedian, he does not have the raw, angry bite of Lewis Black. He isn’t a natural improv like Stephen Colbert. He doesn’t express his views as bluntly as Larry Wilmore. His nebbish sense of cultural inferiority is not as pronounced as John Oliver’s. (OK, that last one is a close call.)
Nor, for that matter, are his political and cultural observations as pointed as those of his successor, Trevor Noah—the 31-year-old South African who nearly got burned alive on Twitter after daring to say a negative word about Israel (among other things).
I’ve seen Stewart perform stand-up twice. On the stage, he is pretty much the same quirky, endearing fellow he is at his anchor desk—indeed, a good chunk of his material was lifted from old Daily Show scripts—but there is precious little in his act that rises to the level of brilliance. He might be among the most purely enjoyable comics working today, but he is hardly an innovator in the field.
So why, then—if all this is true—does he depart his post this Thursday as one of the most beloved and indispensable hosts in the history of American television?
There have been many theories these last many weeks—ruminations about how Stewart’s honesty and moral indignation reflect those of millions of others all across the world—but I think his X factor can be traced to a single word: Gratitude.
Having tried his hand at all sorts of random, dead-end jobs after college, then finally diving into the New York stand-up circuit—an environment where success is inevitably preceded by many years of failure—Stewart understands how lucky he is to have had a long, steady job doing what he loves. That he has surpassed all conceivable expectations makes his gig all the sweeter, but it has seemingly never given way to laziness or arrogance. Notwithstanding how exhausting 16 years of hosting would be for anyone, Stewart still approaches every show with a glint in his eye that says, “I can’t believe they pay me for this.”
The Daily Show is an old-fashioned labor of love between Stewart and his team of writers and correspondents, many of whom have been around nearly as long as he has. Once Stewart leaves, it’s not that the program “won’t be the same.” It won’t exist at all, no matter what it says on the awning outside 733 11th Avenue in New York. Jon hosted the show and, at this point, we can rightly say that Jon is the show.
Not that we have much cause to mope about this latest end-of-a-television-era. Since January, Larry Wilmore has done terrific work with The Nightly Show, Stewart’s chaser on the same network. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has swiftly become appointment television over on HBO, where Oliver is able to deep-dive into obscure but critical news topics in a way that Stewart, on basic cable, never could. On September 8, Stephen Colbert begins his tenure at The Late Show on CBS, which may well become more iconic and entertaining than any of us could possibly imagine.
And wouldn’t you know it: Every one of those guys (and plenty more) got his big break on The Daily Show, where Stewart, channeling his inner Lorne Michaels, was able to spot nascent comedic talent and allow it to bloom.
In that way, Thursday’s finale won’t be a farewell to Jon Stewart on the airwaves, for his work is everywhere—namely, in the success of all his former underlings who will now carry on the legacy he created. An entire generation of comics with a single common ancestor.
Not bad for a short, neurotic Jewish kid from New Jersey.