Jon Stewart's Final 'Daily Show': Our Moment of Zen

Defining 'bullshit' and bringing out Springsteen, the host's bittersweet-victory lap paid tribute to his roots

Jon Stewart hosts the final episode of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in New York City on August 6th, 2015. Credit: Brad Barket/Getty

After 16 years of being mad as hell, Jon Stewart finally doesn't have to take it any anymore. On his emotional farewell to The Daily Show, he didn't even try to hide his relief that he can now go entire weeks at a time without watching Fox News. The last shebang had a roll call of Daily Show superstars, along with Bruce Springsteen doing "Land of Hope and Dreams." John McCain said, "So long, jackass." (All these years later and McCain still can't keep his Nineties MTV comedy bros straight — Jackass was Johnny Knoxville, MTV Sports was Stewart, or wait, wasn't that Dan Cortese?) Craig Kilborn, a man who has exhibited astounding restraint and discipline lately, said, "I knew you'd run this thing into the ground." "It's a pause in the conversation," Stewart said. "So rather than saying 'goodbye' or goodnight, I'm just gonna say I'm gonna get a drink. And I'm sure I'm gonna see you guys before I leave."

That's the line you say at at a party — or a comedy club — when you're ditching your crew and making a stealth exit. And Stewart spent his final days beefing up his connections to stand-up comedy, rather than politics. His final-week guests could have been a parade of A-list politicos, but instead Stewart called on Amy SchumerDenis Leary and Louis C.K., as well as making a surprise stand-up appearance at an NYC club. That was a retiring politician's last visit to his old precinct, just to make sure the locals remember his name before he returns as a civilian. In a weird way, the scene it evoked was George H.W. Bush on Election Day 1992, when he made an excursion to a sporting-goods store to buy some fishing equipment.

When Clinton won that night, Bush announced he was "going heavily into the grandchild business," and so is Jon Stewart — except his home precinct is the comedy club, where you get your laugh and drink your drink and don't have to spend every waking minute thinking about Trump. The fact that several of the world's most awful white men staged the GOP debate on the same night was a great joke in itself — Stewart looked delighted he never has to think up a 10,000th way to take the piss out of any of them.

Like so many things that started up in the Nineties, The Daily Show was a gift from Bill Clinton. There was no Eighties equivalent, because that would have required people to feel a bemused disgust for Reagan, who was strictly a love-or-hatred president. But Bill Clinton was to bemused disgust what FDR was to cigarette smoke — he rolled around all day in a cloud of that shit, because he loved the smell. He was the politician Jon Stewart was born to make fun of, except he was gone before Stewart really had the chance. His job got nastier because America did; he had to surrender his bemused disgust and get meaner. So he spent all those years with the smoldering resentment of a guy who clearly wished he had a funnier bunch of enemies to make jokes about. His job got less fun because America did.

The last time Stewart signed off from a talk show, it was his doomed Nineties late-night syndicated chat-fest, which got the axe for abysmal ratings. Stewart had a droll exit line: "To everyone who said this show would never last — you were right." Stewart was a regular-guy bro comic when he showed up in the 1990s. And although Stewart prefers to mock his youthful aspirations — insert your own Death to Smoochy joke — he was great from the beginning. His MTV show arrived in 1993 with the hype line "More fun than a swimming pool full of fat guys!" In the ads, Stewart fielded questions about celebrity divorces from — indeed — a swimming pool full of fat guys. When one of them asked about Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, Stewart replied curtly, "Love dies, Carl."

If you've read the autobiography of the Nineties MTV VJ Kennedy (yes, this book actually exists, though I can't claim you're wasting your life if you haven't) there's a funny story about partying with Stewart and Nine Inch Nails — Trent and the boys idolized Stewart, so they pushed Kennedy to exploit her MTV connections to lure him backstage so they could all party together at New Orleans strip clubs. It seems weird to think Stewart ever had a hanging-with-Trent phase in his celebrity arc. But that's the track he was on.

When Stewart joined The Daily Show in January 1999, he seemed way too famous for the job, and it wasn't an easy fit at first. I was already a fan of both Stewart and The Daily Show, but the fusion seemed awkward at first for both parties. Stewart took over the Craig Kilborn beta version, which ended only because the host got promoted to the big-money network job. It's weird to notice how the show still holds on to the Kilborn template — the set, the headlines-plus-interviews format, the Moment of Zen. It's easy to disparage the Kilborn original in retrospect, and why not, but lots of people did cheap-shot cocky-asshole humor in the Nineties, and Kilborn excelled at it because he never pretended to be smart — just a dumb blonde mouthing bitchy Lewinsky jokes with a phony smile. He played a smarmy cartoon character, surprisingly close to what Stephen Colbert ended up doing. In fact, Kilborn was so good at it some of us suspected he might be secretly brilliant. Yeah, so no.

Stewart was too famous as a regular-guy comedian to get away with Kilborn-style brat humor, even if he'd wanted to. So he had to adjust to doing a Daily Show that was always heartbreakingly different from the one he'd planned — goodbye Bill Clinton and bemused disgust, hello George Bush and bitter outrage. His greatness was that he suffered badly from the end of the Nineties; he articulated the rage, the grief, the sense of bewilderment that the wide-open frontiers of Bubba America got clamped down so swiftly and surely. When the Nineties ended with 12/12/2000 and 9/11/2001, it was the death of an America that Jon Stewart loved.

Unlike most of us, he had to do his mourning in public. It took a toll on him, year after year, and he didn't hide it. But he didn't let that bitterness destroy him or make him give up hope. That stands as his greatest achievement. It's too soon to tell what will happen to the Daily Show franchise without Stewart. Will it become a throne that gets passed on, Carson-to-Leno-to-Fallon style? Or a kingdom that lives and dies with one monarch, a la Oprah or Merv Griffin? Jon Stewart wasn't lying last night: He will see us before he leaves. But he also wasn't lying back in 1993. Love dies.