CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK | Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart got in the habit of being correct about most things, thanks to his own intelligence as well as the cleverness of the writers and researchers who made “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” an unwavering success for 16 years in the thorny fields of political satire and media criticism.
So when he says it’s time for him to hang it up as host of the show he took over in January 1999, who can possibly disagree? “This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host,” Stewart told his audience at the end of Tuesday night’s episode, formally announcing his imminent departure. “And neither do you.”
Out of both loyalty and sentimentality, the typical “Daily Show” fan may treat this news as an unthinkable development (consider how many young Americans have hardly known an election cycle without Stewart’s sardonic interpretation of the news and noise). But it’s entirely thinkable to anyone who began to sense, some years back, that Stewart and company had perfected the form and could advance it no further.
His rambling, ad-libbed, no-eye-contact explanation for his decision to leave “The Daily Show” was pure Stewart, down to his hokey imitation of a Frankenstein monster trying to fight back tears. He said that there was no firm date for his final episode — although he alluded to his contract’s end in September. “I don’t think I’m going to miss being on television every day, but I’m going to miss coming here every day,” he said.
If he’s as smart and cognizant of the unvarnished truth as we believe him to be, then Stewart recognized that there is a whole other kind of “Daily Show” waiting to be made, hosted by someone else, maybe something that’s not even called “The Daily Show.” His version of it had become comfortable; surely it is still great comfort to those who first flocked to it during “Indecision 2000” and the Bush vs. Gore recount, or who desperately needed it in the darkest days of post-9/11 war-waging. To watch “The Daily Show” every single night before bed, and to go on believing that it would never change or evolve, is like being a child who never outgrows “Goodnight Moon.” It gets old. It had to.
For Stewart’s closest yet least worshipful watchers, it was possible to detect the slightest whiff of a host beginning to resent his own success in the last few years. He delighted in the absurdity well past the point where “The Daily Show’s” definition of absurdity (its war on absurdity) had become a kind of cultural norm.
There’s a futility to his life’s work as well: After all those amazing swordfights with Fox News and other media outlets, in what demonstrable way has the beast been slain? Or even tamed? His default expression became more of a shrug, a series of facial tics to convey exasperation, surrender, a realization that there are no more words left to say. So why say them?
What better example that this iteration of “The Daily Show” has run its course than the 25 minutes that preceded Stewart’s big bombshell Tuesday night? There was an intensely yet predictably sharp takedown of the conservative media’s (which is to always say Fox News’) fawnfest over Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who certain pundits say shows the very leadership skills they crave in a president – an irony tailor-made for Stewart’s ridicule, as well as his show’s vast, effective archive of news clips that, when assembled into a typical “Daily Show” collage, only enhance the absurdity of the talking point: “Why can’t Obama be more like this powerful Muslim king?” Stewart said, wryly summing up their views. “Which is weird … because that’s actually been their biggest complaint about Obama.”
That, followed by, of all possible guests on any possible weeknight, David Axelrod, the Obama campaign advisor who is now shilling a 528-page memoir, “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.” (The book landed with a lugubrious thud when Stewart set it on his desk.) It was as if Stewart picked the perfect show to drop his own news, offering subliminal proof that “The Daily Show” has been on a familiar loop for a while now.
Still, you have to love the hyper-informed Stewart fans taking to social media after the news broke to wonder why he’d want to leave just as the 2016 presidential campaign machine is revving up? Won’t he miss it?
Such people (I think they’re mainly in Washington and New York) never quite sense how easily the rest of us tire of politics, nor can they conceptualize the utter relief of not having to eat, live and breathe the certain horror that will form our next presidential election. Good for Stewart, he can get as far away (or as close) to the insanity as he likes. He’s earned it.
And anyhow, look at the world now — particularly where popular culture, media criticism and politics intersect. With Stewart at the desk, “The Daily Show” became a shared language of skepticism, analysis and, where it is so often appropriate, mockery.
Both media and consumers took the Stewart way to heart, or at least became hip to it. You can see his influence in other shows (including its direct descendants, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”) but you can also see it on social networks and the constant zing of user comments. We’re a public eager to get to the ironic truth of something as fast as possible.
Stewart’s leaving shouldn’t be seen as an act of abandonment. Think of it, instead, as an acknowledgment of completed work.