Last Thursday, Aug. 6, we watched the final episode of Jon Stewart hosting The Daily Show — a show that has become so ingrained into American pop/political/comedic culture that you can easily find writers from every major publication trying to sum up its modern cultural significance.
Writers from The Washington Post to The New York Times and every news-related website want to take on the ultimate challenge: to describe the indescribable. Because at the end of the day, or more specifically, at the end of his 17-year run, what Stewart and The Daily Show have accomplished is so broad and encompassing that it is nearly that — indescribable.
If you’ve ever heard Jon Stewart interviewed, you’ll notice that he never allows himself to accept the importance that his comedy, or “fake news” as he calls it, holds in our society. Any attempt to allow him to accept his role in the pop media landscape was put down with immediate self-deprecation: ”We are just a comedy show,” he said. While most self-deprecation in American pop-culture is disingenuous, Stewart’s is not, or else he would have cracked a long time ago. (How many of us could handle millions of accolades of “genius” or “king” year after year without starting to believe it?) Internally, Stewart never lost his ability to put comedy first when so many others would have reverted to preachy social change. And, ultimately, that allowed our trust in him to grow each passing year as a conduit of clarity for pop and political culture. As his ratings grew and his influence became undeniable, he only changed by being more honest about the world and events around us.
It must be said that with all the praise and honor writers are bestowing on Stewart this week (and during the last 6 months since his retirement announcement), there is an underlying sense of fatalism with his departure —like a cop who has taken down dozens of drug-kingpins only to see dozens pop back up. He might be going out on top for many of us, but anyone that has watched him through the years can spot a hint of exhaustion. The vocal inflections of his iconic line, “roll the clip,” prior to showing back-to-back clips of politicians contradicting themselves, sometimes within days, has slowly evolved from an excited, “look what we found,” to a weary, “I can’t believe this is still happening.”
In discussing his retirement, there was a moment of unflinching honesty about how he can’t spend his life watching the deceptions and inadequacies of both politicians and 24-hour cable news programs any longer. Stewart placed himself on the front lines of the intellectual battle for 17 years; while most of us can’t believe he’s leaving when one of his favorite targets, Donald Trump, is actually leading the GOP field, I see a man that is tired of going to battle with entrenched corruption and media and government collusion. Here’s a point-man that has led us through the enemy jungles of anti-intellectualism, anti-science, deception, and hypocrisy and he needs a new view and some new projects.
Stewart used comedic satire to teach us how to stop being fooled. We can talk about writing and comedy and entertainment all day, but our sense of loss this week comes from our fear that we won’t have anyone to help us see through the constant deception and bait-and-switch of modern politics. But I hope Stewart realizes that he’s given an entire generation the tools they need to cut through the constant spin to the deeper reality. He’s also shown that truth and comedy can go hand in hand and be profitable for media companies brave enough to try. His acolyte, John Oliver, is having a tremendous run on HBO with his comedy-meets-investigative-journalism show Last Week Tonight.
Losing Stewart’s voice and insight in the middle of an election cycle is almost unthinkable. But there are young writers and journalists who will now see the media landscape differently because of him. He’s shown us that people crave authenticity, honesty, and the ability to react to events with genuine emotion. We may never have another Jon Stewart, but in this digital age we each have the power to promote clarity in the vast sea of deception. Stewart has spent 17 years showing us how.