America will miss Jon Stewart. But it’s fair to say we miss him already, because his America is gone. The political climate — angrier, more bitter, more violently divided — is radically different from the one he signed up to make fun of. Political satire, as Stewart defined it on The Daily Show, requires him to appear equally tough on the left and the right. But that means he has to pretend there’s such a thing as a moderate center.
If his show got more predictable in the past few years — making the same jokes every night about the same Fox News/Tea Party bullshit — that’s because America did too. And it clearly took a toll on him. “Watching these channels all day is incredibly depressing,” he said recently. “I live in a constant state of depression.”
Stewart was a strange fit for The Daily Show, an already thriving franchise when he took over in 1999. His specialty was a sort of good-natured bro humor. He didn’t do topical material. He looked uncomfortable in a suit and tie. If he’d ever had a political opinion, he kept it to himself. The transition was clumsier than anyone wants to remember. But there was a moment, early on in those first few months, when you could see things change — in retrospect, this was one of the pivot points of 21st-century TV culture. Stewart was doing a bit about the NYPD — then wracked by a scandal in which at least one cop sexually assaulted and tortured a black man with a toilet plunger — and its “CPR” motto: “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.” Stewart said, “Although many officers tragically mistake it for ‘Cram Plunger in Rectum.’ ”
Then he winced — not a comedian’s wince, not a jokey “sorry, folks” wince, just a reflexive flinch that said, “Wow, that was not fun at all.” You could see he hated himself for that line, hated the handful of people in the audience who laughed — and was already telling himself, “Yeah, this is exactly what I’m not doing from now on.”