When Stewart waves good-bye to his audience tonight, after 16 years of helming The Daily Show, we should all mourn the loss of a unique personality in today’s cultural mosaic: Stewart was one of the few intellects who could turn his entertainment career into a journalistic diatribe against the follies of the world.
Stewart was merciless in blasting his foes over the years: Fox News, Dick Cheney, George Bush, racist Americans, the Church of Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church, greedy retailers, lazy journalists, and much more. He might’ve framed his criticism with seemingly immature puns and penis jokes, but underneath that Comedy Central sass was a man who was simply pissed off with what he saw…and he didn’t want to lie down and take it.
His nightly gagfest gave rise to many imitators but none could match The Daily Show‘s blend of smarts, comedy, investigate reportage and impressive breadth. Stewart and his team spotlighted how easily politicians retracted their promises by displaying video clips of their past quotes and current claims, in segments that didn’t need any punchlines to skewer the hypocrisy in American politics.
The New Yorker’s David Remnick summed up Stewart’s methodology by writing, “…with the help of his writers, his co-stars, and a tirelessly acute research team, was the best seriocomic reader of the press since A. J. Liebling laid waste to media barons like William Randolph Hearst and Colonel Robert R. McCormick.” I couldn’t agree more. In all my years of studying press and political critics, no one had the acumen of Stewart, or the courage to bluntly express his distaste for the many injustices that boiled his blood.
Right-wingers like Bill O’Reilly may be quick to blast Stewart as an unpatriotic, selectively-editing joker. But Stewart is the ultimate patriot. He just wants to see a better America. He’s not happy with the status quo, as we spotted in his frequent takedown of President Obama on his use of drone technology and the Veteran Affairs fiasco.
The moments that stay with me most are not the segments dripping with laughter. Rather, when Stewart relaxed his funny bone and spoke some real-talk about tragedies and crises, we were left spellbound. After 9/11, he began his program with a monologue: “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. And now it’s gone. And they attacked it, this symbol of American ingenuity and strength, and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”
After the death of Eric Garner, Stewart told his audience with a straight face. “I honestly don’t know what to say,” he told his audience. “If comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more [bleep]ing time. But I would really settle for less [bleep]ing tragedy.”
By pulling back from his jokey segments to give us the truly dumbstruck Jon Stewart was an exercise in television profundity few could pull off with ease. And he made himself even more human during those moments, as if he was saying, “Yeah I can make Dick Cheney jokes, but there are times when we should have to call bullshit on the world.”
Last night, his friend and comedian Louis C.K. nicely recapped what many of Daily Show fans think about Stewart’s legacy: “Your show is one of the great comedy accomplishments of all time,” Louis told him. You can almost hear Stewart blush. But this wasn’t just two friends patting each other on the back; Stewart undoubtedly pulled off a 16-year project that has impacted every corner of journalism, comedy and TV entertainment.
And with his departure imminent, here’s hoping Stewart doesn’t stray far from public attention, because his voice is too invaluable to lose.