After more than 16 years and nearly 2,600 telecasts, Jon Stewart can feel proud of his scads of Emmys and his pair of Peabody Awards, his cultural gravitas (he hung with the Prez, both on and off the air!), even his reprobate status at Fox News.
Who could blame him for wanting to depart “The Daily Show” on this high note?
Besides, maybe it had gotten too easy. By June, when Donald Trump jumped into the presidential race, a giddy Stewart framed this jest-alluring candidacy as Trump’s going-away gift to him, “putting me in some sort of comedy hospice where all I’m getting is straight morphine.”
Or maybe it had gotten too hard.
When he took over “The Daily Show” in January 1999, Stewart’s simple mission was to host a program that would lampoon “real” newscasts and newsmakers they enabled.
“I like keeping up with the news,” he told the Associated Press at the time, “even though I think it’s gotten so out of control. But that’s what I like about ‘The Daily Show’: It’s like checks and balances.”
But in an interview a few months ago, Stewart put a bit more dismally the task of finding the funny in the news.
“I think of us as turd miners,” he said. “I put on my helmet, I go and mine turds. Hopefully I don’t get turd lung disease.”
Absurdity embedded in truth
A famous definition of news: “What those in power don’t want you to know.”
Meanwhile, the illuminative mockery of Stewart’s “fake news” might be defined as “What those in power don’t want you to think.”
Always questioning authority — whether politicians, corporate titans, media barons or, of course, puffed-up journalists — Stewart did what satirists have done for centuries: He seized on the absurdity embedded in accepted truth.
But as “The Daily Show” aped the bombast and blizzard of graphics employed, without irony, by “legitimate” newscasts, Stewart never copped to grandiose claims for what he was up to.
“Our meeting every morning is an explicit discussion of what’s going on in the world,” he declared in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press. “But then the rest of the day is spent trying to hide that under layers of fart jokes.”
While Stewart is undeniably left-leaning, his show, he said, “doesn’t honor the distinction between left wing and right wing, or liberal and conservative, or in some respects between Democrat and Republican.
“We only honor the distinction between real and absurdly fake,” he said, then grinned. “And WE are absurdly fake.”
“The Daily Show” under Stewart thus made a credible argument that, for journalism and public affairs, bogus is the new real, leaving fact and fantasy interchangeable. “The Daily Show” prevailed as a bit of daylight in between, a privileged space that granted Stewart almost limitless freedom to make fun of things, even as he exercised due diligence in making sense of them in the process.
A higher purpose
Some (even Stewart) would say “The Daily Show” is a half-hour of silliness meant to call out politicians and other power brokers with no higher purpose than amusing its audience.
Still, he was sharply attuned to America’s many wrong turns, how its leadership and media routinely let the country down. In 2010, he and fellow Comedy Central fake-news host Stephen Colbert even organized a rollicking “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” that drew tens of thousands to Washington’s National Mall.
Americans, said Stewart in one of the telecast’s more serious moments, do “impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.”
But reasonable compromises are what elected officials are loath to make in the present day; what news media dismiss in favor of spotlighting the more watchable bad behavior and conflict.
Americans do work together to get things done, insisted Stewart. “The only place we don’t is here,” he said, pointing behind him at the Capitol, “or on cable TV.”
Crazy and laughter
There has been little sign of sanity restored.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people who jumped to conclusions and peddled a false, divisive, anger-stoking narrative had to apologize for misleading America?” mused Stewart last March in reference to a certain cable-news network.
On Thursday, Stewart, now 52, will step aside, making way for Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old stand-up comic from South Africa, to manage this nightly reality check as the nation dives headlong into the 2016 presidential election cycle.
Maybe Stewart has concluded things are crazier than ever. And, after all, how much crazy can one man comb through night after night, searching for laughs, and retain his own sanity?
In June, as he reflected on the mass shootings in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, there were no laughs to be had.
“I honestly have nothing, other than sadness,” he said before sadly predicting that, even now, after yet another American atrocity, “we still won’t do jack----” to join together for a solution.
Are things crazier than ever? Are we more painfully aware?
If that’s the case, his fans can thank Stewart for his abiding and soon-to-be-missed role in bringing us the crazy with insight, clarity and, of course, loads of laughs. Whatever he’s been mining for his more than 16 years, he made the most of it.
A few stellar ‘Daily Show’ alums
You want a great career in comedy? Start by landing a job as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”! Under Jon Stewart’s 16-year-long run as host, it became one of TV’s best launching pads.
Here are a few shining examples:
Stephen Colbert (1997-2005): Arriving two years before Stewart became host, Colbert scored in his emerging persona as a right-wing blowhard correspondent. He left “The Daily Show” to launch his own companion show, which he hosted for a decade. Then, in late 2014, he exited Comedy Central for CBS, where in September he will step into the “Late Show” slot long occupied by David Letterman.
Steve Carell (1999-2005): From 2005 to 2011, he starred in the NBC comedy “The Office,” then left to continue a thriving film career, including his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2014 drama “The Foxcatcher.”
John Oliver (2006-2013): In April 2014, this droll Brit debuted his own weekly comic-commentary show, “Last Week Tonight,” on HBO.
Ed Helms (2002-2006): He joined “The Office” in 2006, continuing through its conclusion in 2013. His films include “The Hangover” trilogy and “We’re the Millers.”
Larry Wilmore (2006-2014): A successful writer-producer (“The PJs” and “The Bernie Mac Show”), he served as Senior Black Correspondent before leaving “The Daily Show” to host Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” which premiered in January.
Samantha Bee (2003-2015) and Jason Jones (2005-2015): After their lengthy stints at “The Daily Show,” this married comic couple left in May 2015 to develop a comedy for TBS.
Rob Corddry (2002-2006): After “The Daily Show,” he created and stars in the online and TV cult favorite “Childrens Hospital.”
Aasif Mandvi (2006-2015): Along with comic TV appearances, he has been a regular on the dramas “The Bedford Diaries” and “Jericho,” as well as on the current HBO comedy “The Brink.”
Trevor Noah (2014-2015): A rising young stand-up comic from South Africa, Noah had barely set foot into “The Daily Show” as a correspondent before he was tapped to succeed Stewart as host. He takes over in that role on Sept. 28.
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