While it’s hard to imagine this as the show’s new intro, the inevitable has finally happened: After a nearly two-decade run, the host of TDS will be leaving the anchor seat and the franchise he shaped into a tiny, basic-cable-shaped empire. As Stewart made the teary announcement at the end of yesterday’s show, it was hard not to feel disaffected news consumers, comedy fans, Comedy Central execs and demographic swaths of liberals in their 20s, 30s and 40s all wincing as one.
It’s easy to rhapsodize when faced with the end of an era, so let’s review Stewart’s track record: 56 Emmy nominations and 20 wins, most of which he garnered for Outstanding Variety Show or Outstanding Writing in a Variety Show. His viewership, according to recent ratings, is well over 2 million an episode, and his “Indecision” campaigns provided a snappy alternative to those put off by dour or puffed up presidential election coverage. In 2010, alongside protégé Stephen Colbert, he brought 200,000 people to the mall in Washington D.C. to “Restore Sanity and/or Fear”; he’s kicked off, refreshed and enhanced the careers of an incredible number of comedians. And above all, he created a home for smart, irreverent, left-leaning political coverage on cable and then brought care and consistency to it, night after night.
There wasn’t much to compare The Daily Show to in 1999; under Stewart’s predecessor Craig Kilborn, the show had relied on easy-target pop-culture digs and mean-spirited correspondents’ pieces to keep the show moving. At the time, Stewart was a proven stand-up comic, a successfully silly MTV host and a satirist about to publish his first book of comic essays, but there was no clear indication of the authoritative voice that would eventually emerge from him. If Trey Parker and Matt Stone were Comedy Central’s blaspheming, shit-smearing cases of arrested development, Stewart became its erudite, arch older brother with the vocabulary and poli-sci degree. His satire, his alternately jocular and thoughtful interviewing style and his instinct for identifying clever collaborators all blossomed as he found his footing and the ideal forum for his informed sensibilities.
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his famous request to Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of Crossfire — “Stop hurting America” — was a not-so-quiet refrain under everything the host did.
In the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the sheer volume of garbage it could produce in the name of filling airtime, Stewart’s presence offered lost, primarily liberal souls a guiding light. Every night, the anchor played a smirking Dante, guiding onlookers through the fresh hell offered by the likes of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. While dogmatic, conservative fountainheads such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fumed and spat their grievances, The Daily Show became a haven for those seeking an antidote. He was ostensibly just a comedian (a defense he’d repeatedly invoke when interlocutors attacked his journalistic chops), but Stewart could made histrionic sources of would-be news appear as a sort of theatrical entertainment in contrast. His lighthearted rivalry with Bill O’Reilly, in particular, made it feel that all pundits were wearing ridiculous masks while mugging for the camera.
Though his interviews included their fair share of late-night celebrity fluff, Stewart also introduced national audiences to scientists, authors, activists and politicians that may not have otherwise had direct contact with their constituents. Under his direction, TDS became a stop on the presidential campaign trail that indicated a candidate could endure a bit of scrutiny while not taking him or herself too seriously. And though he was known to toss softballs, Stewart didn’t hold back when he found worthy adversaries: He held CNBC’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer’s feet to the fire, challenged Mike Huckabee on gay marriage and Grover Norquist on tax reform. (By the same token, he didn’t let Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Al Gore slide either.) And when he made visits on other cable pundit pageants, he did so as a regulator; his famous request to Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of Crossfire — “Stop hurting America” — was a not-so-quiet refrain under everything the host did.
While it’s difficult to be a star-maker like Johnny Carson in the digital era, Stewart exhibited tremendous talent for selecting and highlighting comedic talent. In the early days, he gave Steve Carell room to play and Lewis Black time to rant. He fostered rising talents like Rob Corrdry and Wyatt Cenac. For John Hodgman and Kristen Schaal, he provided space to showcase their idiosyncratic, sui generis personas. This is to say nothing of those correspondents he has led to related franchises of their own: Larry Wilmore to new The Nightly Show, John Oliver to HBO’s highly TDS-influenced Last Week Tonight and most notably, Stephen Colbert to The Colbert Report. More than just airtime, Stewart provided those who worked for him guidance, support and friendship; even watching just one “toss” to the Report made this apparent.
Of all the admirable qualities he possesses, though, and of all the things to miss, Stewart’s guiding thesis for TDS stands out the most: To seek out, expose and to laugh at hypocrisy. (While some argue that this last step allows fans to feel smug and superior without any of that, you know, “action” nonsense, it’s hard to believe that many regular viewers would search out and identify the duplicity on their own.) Stewart’s outrage is a distorted mirror image of his audience’s outrage; his startled spit-takes and smatterings of “Oh, fuck,” are those of the disheartened and disenfranchised — people battered not only by the political and economic systems in question, but the self-regarding, inflammatory news media outlets that purport to keep those systems in check. Such is the trust he’s earned with his audience: They check in to find out what they don’t know and see how they feel about it.
The franchise is now a sturdy one, of course, and Stewart’s short departure to direct the film Rosewater last summer indicated, another talented host should be able to keep it running. Whomever Comedy Central chooses to put in those shoes, however, will have a hell of time filling them.