We are standing at the end of an era. We here at The NYRD do not want to put too fine of a point on this, so we will just be blunt. We are going to miss Jon Stewart, and without him around, the future of American news and politics seems a little more bleaker. Tonight, Stewart finishes up his final show, ending a more than 16 year run on Comedy Central. The final show itself will be full of all the humor and candor that we have come to respect and love about Stewart, but we do not want to talk about the end. Instead, let’s start on the beginning.
At Wit’s Beginning
The year was 1999, and a little know comedian whose specialty seemed to be more sheepish bro humor than scathing political commentary, took the seat of a little know late night comedy show on Comedy Central. The Daily Show began in 1996 with host Craig Kilborn. In the beginning it seemed to have problems finding its footing. It ran more like a parody of a local news program than political satire, but that all changed after Stewart took over. Over those first few years he helped the show develop a style based more on lampooning the major news networks and pointing out the absurdities in the American political system. The change did not happen all at once, but in a sense both he and the show grew together, and we all took notice.
It seemed the grayer Stewart’s hair got, the more popular he became. It may also have helped that he took over at the beginning of a new era of absurdity in news reporting. His first on-air report was literally on Clinton’s Impeachment. We would offer to insert some kind of Clinton-penis-joke here but Monica Lewinsky already did that… And The Daily Show always did it better. In their first ever Presidential race Jon and his associates introduced their Indecision 2000 coverage, a name so overwhelming appropriate that in a time when it seemed like the regular news media has no idea how to cover Florida ballot recounts or Supreme Court rulings on who our President was, that people turned to the “fake new” to make more sense out of the debacle. Then, after the world was rocked by tragic events in New York and the subsequent wars that followed it was Stewart that we all went to for comfort and understanding. He never made the news less scary or depressing, but he made us laugh and told us truths as no one else seemed capable of doing.
Then the world went and changed. Social media, the Internet, and the loss of our collective attention spans altered the way we digested the news. So even as The Daily Show grew and Stewart progressed, the world around him cranked the crazy meter up to eleven. Fox News, CNN, and all the rest became less about reporting and more about ratings, invoking both flag waving and scare tactics, but Stewart adapted. He followed the national conversation and dissected it four times a week for sixteen years, often with more skill and wit than any professional journalist. In the process, The Daily Show went from chasing the national conversation to shaping it. Each day Stewart seemed more at home in his suit and behind his desk, and each year more and more young people were tuning in. He became not just a footnote to the day’s news but the source of it for many. He engaged youth in politics, world events, and even asked the tough questions that other news sources dared not to. He did good in a way so many people can only dream of. He helped change public awareness on many issues, and even got CNN to cancel Crossfire.
No Laughing Matter
A 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center found that Jon Stewart ranked fourth in the category of “Most Admired Journalist,” alongside names like Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, and Dan Rather. By 2009 he landed on top of Times‘s list of “Most Trusted Newscasters”, and with good reason. The show’s success has a lot do with it’s format, but as much to do with the honesty of Stewart himself. A Jersey boy, born and bred, straight-talker who refuses to eat NY pizza with a knife and fork. He is an everyman, the smartest everyman you may ever meet, but over the years he became a voice for everyone in the audience.
The comedian often spoke our frustration, rage, and even depression at the events that were unfolding around him. He watched the world turn from a chair on a sound stage, and the jokes he made seemed like the last bedrock of sanity in a world that was spinning too fast and in the wrong direction. Nothing was ever perfect and Stewart would be the first to admit that The Daily Show made its fair amount of mistakes, but that is the point. He always admitted his faults and failures, never trying to hide behind some sheen illusion of perfection. He also had his detractors, others in the news media, politicians, celebrities, and more. He got his fair share of angry phone calls and emails, but the truth is that for many, being featured on a segment of the The Daily Show was almost a mark of honor.
His opinions sometimes felt harsh, but funny. Even at times when his jokes ran parallel to one’s own opinion you still managed a chuckle. That was the magic of Stewart. He was not demagogue sent to lecture you, but a friend there to give advice over a bottle of beer. Most importantly, he made you think. Well, first he made you laugh, and then ball up in a corner and cry a little, but once you thought about it all, then you got to thinking. Even if you did not share his opinion you still entertained it, and even if your mind was not changed you still respected him for his words.
The Punch Line
Courage will be a word you may hear a lot in other tributes like these that will be floating around in the next week or so, but courage is not the right word. Sure, it takes courage to get on TV every night and say the things others won’t about a Senator or a US President who will be a guest on your show in two days, but there is something more to it. Jon Stewart created a space where comedy informed a greater dialogue, because despite some of the opinions of others, once we learn to laugh about something we fear talking about it less. Maybe humor really is a rubber sword or maybe it had more to do with Stewart himself, but there was a refreshing quality about the 25 minutes we all got to spend together.
He spawned many like him, both friends and imitators. He changed the way people watched and reported the news, but there will never be another Jon Stewart, and we are going to miss him. We can not blame him for retiring, he deserves it, but we wish there was a clear successor to the torch he lit. We face a world where Donald Trump can blast ignorance and insults and be ahead in polls for a Presidential primary, and part of us has to wonder what will we do without our daily dose of sanity. With his retirement from the The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert going mainstream on CBS, Larry Wilmore floundering to find his voice, and only one weekly dosage of John Oliver on HBO, we find ourselves looking out on a landscape that is suddenly less vibrant and a bit more chaotic. -We will not even mention Stewart’s replacement, who no one seems entirely sure about. Where are we going to get our news from now? Certainly, not the 24-hour news networks. If we wanted to watch comedy, we would go to down to Chelsea and catch a stand-up show. At least it would feel more honest.
On a very personal note, Jon Stewart and his drive and passion to engage in the national conversation is one of our major influences here at The NYRD. We know we will never be able to do what he did or even be as funny, but we will never stop trying. He has inspired us and others like us to talk about what is going on and think about how our actions and our voices can change the national debate, and really what higher compliment can you give to any man. Many may call Jon Stewart a cultural phenomena, but he is more than that. His work changed the way people see the world and the way people want to engage in it. So maybe the answer to our hypothetical question is that we are all Jon Stewart’s successors. We may not have cable shows or even blogs, but we have a responsibility to continue the discussion he started.
A Moment of Zen
Between 1999 and 2015 we went from the West Wing to House of Cards. We went from a nation built on hope to one wrapped in fear. Sound bites became shorter and more sensational. Sex tapes made celebrities, while politicians ran for the far corners of their respective aisles. Everything became more sensational and more irrelevant, but Stewart was always there, a friendly Sherpa willing to point us in the right direction and maybe offer us a warm drink and a place to dry off, if only for a short time. When Stewart was on stage it never seemed so bad. Maybe it is a truly absurd world when we have come to rely on our comedians to tell us the truth about the world around us, but no one did it better. We may never see his like again.
We know we should have put more jokes in this article, but for once we just did not feel funny enough to match up to the master, but we at The NYRD want to thank him for all he has done and to remind everyone that it is up to us now, all of us, to continue on with the national discussion, even if it will now be lacking some of the same sharp and childish wit.