The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jon Stewart’s last ‘Daily Show’: A sentimental sign-off from the B.S. detector

From Indecision 2000 to his “Crossfire" takedown to his friendly feud with Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart remade the political and media landscape during his 16 years as host of “The Daily Show." (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

It’s been a long year of farewell shows and prolonged goodbyes in the late-night pantheon, and it’s Jon Stewart’s bad luck that he went last on Thursday night with his final episode as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Stewart’s last show was a loose and satisfyingly sentimental hour, but you know how these kids today like everything ranked on a list. Expect a lot of headlines that read “9 Reasons Why Stephen Colbert’s Last Show Was Better Than Jon Stewart’s” and “David Letterman Is Better At Saying Goodbye Than Jon Stewart – Here’s How” mixed into your newsfeed for the next 12 to 24 hours.

In a show that so loved the idea of irony, it was fittingly symbolic that Stewart’s final episode was elbowing for attention from a concurrent and strange comedy over on the Fox News Channel, in the form of a split-level debate among a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls. It was a reminder to bereaved fans that the man they’ve come to regard as a light in a dark tunnel will not be there to guide them through the noise and nonsense of another election cycle. (Somehow we’ll go on.)

Instead of a surprising send-off, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” neatly checked off its boxes: An array of boldface names from politics and media – Hillary Clinton, Lindsey Graham, John Kerry, Rahm Emanuel; Bill O’Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Christie and John McCain – got in their last and not-very-deep digs (“So long, jackass,” said McCain); a camera tour of “The Daily Show” offices attempted to get every staff member into one of those single-take videos that used to be so popular on the Web.

A long segment that started out as a parody of debate coverage instead expanded into a parade of former “Daily Show” correspondents, including Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Rob and Nate Corddry, Mo Rocca, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, Darth Vader (who objected to being compared to Dick Cheney) and Gitmo the terrorist puppet (who learned he’d still be imprisoned in Gitmo). John Oliver was there; so was Wyatt Cenac, who’d recently revealed that Stewart lost his temper when Cenac criticized his impression of Herman Cain, circa 2012.

“You good?” Stewart asked Cenac.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Cenac replied. “You good?”

On and on it went, mostly as a valentine to die-hard viewers who had been faithfully watching since Stewart began hosting “The Daily Show” in early 1999. Trevor Noah, Stewart’s replacement, glided in with a measuring tape; former (and practically forgotten) host Craig Kilborn appeared to say “I knew you’d run this thing into the ground.” Colbert, who begins hosting CBS’s “The Late Show” in a month, summed it up by thanking Stewart for boosting the careers of so many comedians and performers who’d worked at the show over the years. “You were infuriatingly good at your job,” Colbert said.

In the end, Stewart nobly resisted tears. He left his viewers with important advice about skepticism, riffing on a post-9/11, phrase that neatly summed up his impact on television, journalism, politics and American life in the early 21st century: “The best defense against bulls— is vigilance,” Stewart said. “If you smell something, say something.”

And then came the moment where any sentient viewer would say to himself or herself: This is probably when Bruce Springsteen and his band will play us out.

Then Stewart introduced Springsteen and thus “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was officially played out.