I can’t remember the first time I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I don’t know exactly at which point it became an obsession. I couldn’t tell you when I stopped watching it on a regular basis, or why. And I can’t exactly articulate my feelings now that Jon Stewart is leaving the show. But I can’t let this day pass without saying something about a man who had such an impact on me in some of the most important years of my life.
I think I was extremely blessed by the timing with which Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show. I’m 31 years old now, but when Jon aired his first episode I was 15, and just starting to look at the world around me. Everyone goes through (or at least should go through_ that period in their lives, where they start looking outside of themselves and really take stock of society and their place in it, and for me that personal journey of growth coincided with some rocky times in our country’s history. In the span of just a few years we saw the impeachment of our President, the contentious following election where our new President won despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent, and then of course the deadliest attack on US soil in history followed by two wars. To say things were tumultuous during my high school and college years would be an understatement.
And, of course, everyone had an opinion on all of these events. The news media business exploded as people became more fractured and divided, and they started to seek out voices that reinforced their viewpoints and told them what they wanted to hear. I’d be lying if I said that Jon Stewart didn’t tell me what I wanted and need to hear, as well, but things were always different with Jon. He was an entertainer, a comedian, but he was much more than that. But maybe I should back up for a second.
I’m certain I was watching The Daily Show by the time George W. Bush took office. Jon Stewart would take the news of the day, which was often frustrating beyond belief, and could make me laugh at it. The humor was important, and has been somewhat overlooked in all of the coverage of Stewart’s retirement, because it helped diffuse the anger. It’s easy when you’re a teenager to look at the state of the world and to start to hate everyone, blaming each person you see for their role in making things so shitty, and to simply give up and write the world off as a lost cause. But in those early days of Stewart’s run on The Daily Show, and my early days of taking a good look at things, the humor helped diffuse the anger four nights a week, leaving me a calmer, more rational person as a result.
And then came September 11, 2001, and it felt like the world had ended. I didn’t know how to cope, how to look at the world, or even how to get out of bed in the morning. It was my first exposure to the level of horror that we’re capable of inflicting on each other. And while I was eager to see how my friend (for I considered him a friend by that point), Jon, would respond, I knew that no amount of humor could heal the wounds we all felt in our hearts. Instead, he offered us hope, and in doing so changed The Daily Show for good.
The Bush administration, all other issues aside, was the era of the talking heads. Sure guys like Rush Limbaugh had been around a while by that point, but it seemed like in the years after 9/11 they were all we could hear. To a liberal like myself it felt like the loudest and most popular were the conservative voices, but regardless all we could hear for a few years there was shouting. Everyone was so focused on telling other people how wrong they were that the thought of actually changing things for the better went out the window. Politics and debate became all about winning, not about making things better, and it infuriated Jon as much as it did me, leading to one of the most important moments of his career, and one which didn’t even occur on The Daily Show.
Even considering Stewart’s personal politics, his most frequent target hasn’t been politicians with whom he disagrees, it’s been the system. Whether that’s the way the media manipulates or disregards facts while calling it “news,” or the way in which journalism has degraded to the point where anyone is allowed to present any opinion as the truth without challenge or correction, Jon never had any patience for it. And while Fox News was perhaps his most frequent target, he heaped plenty of criticism on the so-called “mainstream media” as well. He felt that people presenting themselves on TV as covering the “news” had a certain level of responsibility and ethics, a level which few failed to live up to.
Many of my friends switched over to the Colbert Report once it started to gain steam in the mid-2000s, and it’s easy to understand while. Colbert offered more biting sarcasm, humor that made people feel like they were in on the joke. Playing a character modeled off of Bill O’Reilly, Stephen Colbert did some amazing work. His lengthy exploration of the reality of Super PACs is absolutely brilliant, doing the sort of work that news journalists should be (and probably were) doing but reaching many more people. And his White House Correspondents Dinner performance is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. But Colbert the character was too close to the real thing for me to take in large doses, and I frequently wanted him to drop the act and give it to me straight.
But the real reason I never jumped ship from Stewart to Colbert was the way Jon spoke from the heart. It’s simply the difference in the formats and goals of the show, but the Colbert Report was always food for the brain while The Daily Show was frequently food for the heart. Both had the ability to make you laugh hard enough to pee your pants, but the way Stewart dealt with things was soothing for the soul while Colbert tended to just rile me up further. Stewart’s genuine compassion and the depth with which he cared about what he was saying spoke to me in a way that Colbert the character never could. Stewart wasn’t just pointing out hypocrisy because it’s funny, he did it because he felt it is a real problem that gets in the way of things getting better. He never lost track of why he was doing it, even while others got so lost in the messages they were spouting that they lost the meaning behind it.
Of course, The Daily Show had many other things going for it as well. So many well-known talents got their start on the show, and its enormously talented writers room deserves so much credit, but in the end it was Stewart that made the show for me. Half of the appeal was, as I’ve said, the depth to which he cared about what he covered. No one else with his level of influence would have bothered to do something like the Jim Cramer interview, something that could have easily come off as self-righteous if Stewart didn’t keep circling back around to the point that real people were losing their homes and their savings because of Wall Street shenanigans and the business “reporting” environment that enabled the financial meltdown. His heart was always focused on the people who were being lied to, hurt, cast aside, or run over by those in power, and not on simply taking down those at the top. He was a crusader who never carried a flag, who never let his ideology get in the way of trying to make things better.
But I also loved how smart he was, because it challenged me to be smarter. When I was a teenager many people from my parents’ generation scoffed at the idea that people got their news from Comedy Central, but that was only ever half of the story. Sure, I’d tune in every night and often learn something I didn’t know, but to really enjoy The Daily Show you had to be proactive. The jokes were always funnier if you’d done your homework ahead of time, keeping up to date on the latest happenings in anticipation of how Jon would handle the news. The emotional satisfaction from Stewart’s epic takedown of a politician or a news personality was much greater if you didn’t have to rely on him to feed you indignation because the news supplied enough of that on its own. And in the way he would take on any network or news source, he taught us to question everything we were fed and everything we heard, because lies and deception were a part of the game, and one which many conveniently overlook.
His smarts extended beyond just the news, however. Over the last 16 years, Jon has become a phenomenal interviewer. He’s sharp and quick, and so well-informed that he can participate in any discussion no matter the topic. But what sets him apart is the way he treats everyone who comes on the show with respect, whether they’re an actor promoting a film, a nobody author who wrote a book about some obscure historical subject (Jon famously read every book he promoted on the show), a political candidate with whom he strongly disagrees, or even the President. And then he can get out of the way entirely and let someone like Malala shine.
I was lucky enough to go to a taping of The Daily Show back in 2003. It started out rather roughly when the warmup comic made fun of my long hair and my dad’s shorts in a way that was petty and cruel. But then Jon Stewart came out, and he spent a little time talking to the audience. Anyone who’s been to a taping knows he does this, and he frequently tries to work something from his conversation into the episode. In this case, he talked to a woman who was a school teacher, asking her about “No Child Left Behind”, and they jokingly criticized certain realities of the act in a casual way before it was time to start filming.
The episode opened with coverage of the death of Saddam Hussein’s sons, questioning why the photos of their dead bodies were released in the US. Stewart continued by looking at the California Governor recall election, with the punchline being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy. Stephen Colbert came out to “defend” the rights of a tiny minority upset with losing the election to call for a do-over until the person they want is elected. Then the episode’s guest came out, in this case Joseph Wilson, a former Ambassador who was sent to Africa to investigate whether Iraq could have acquired materials for WMDs from their. He advised the administration that it was not likely, and then after Bush’s State of the Union speech, in which he/they ignored Wilson’s advice and went ahead with their claim about WMDs. This interview was only a few weeks after Wilson published an editorial in response to the State of the Union outlining what he had discovered and how he had been ignored by the administration. At the end of the interview, while discussing Iraq, he offered one suggestion for improving the country: “No Iraqi Child Left Behind.” Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, and of course the moment of Zen.
If or when I ever have kids, and they ask about the 2000 election, the years of the Bush administration, 9/11, the War on Terror, Obama, Fox News, the Affordable Care Act, Donald Trump, or anything else from the last 16 years, I don’t know how I’ll describe the way things were without factoring Jon Stewart into the conversation. He’s been such an integral part of the conversation for so long, as a voice of reason, of exasperation, and of hope. He helped keep me sane through the Bush years, helped keep me fighting when politics threatened to become to horrible to even care about anymore, and helped me continue believing that things can get better. And while I haven’t watched the show regularly the past several years, he’s always been around in snippets online or clips shared on Facebook, and I knew I could always turn to him for a funny or purposeful take on the news of the day.
Some would argue that Stewart has finally been worn down, that the job has gotten to him and he’s lost hope. That he’s quitting because he doesn’t see the point in continuing on, despite a reportedly huge offer from Comedy Central. I find it more likely that his story of wanting to spend more time with his family is the truth. Regardless, I’m certain we haven’t seen the last of Stewart, whether on TV, behind the camera of a film, or written in a book. The Daily Show will live on, of course, with Trevor Noah as the new host, but while I’m mildly curious how that will turn out I’m far more interested in what Jon will do next. At this point, he doesn’t owe us anything, and to me personally I feel like he’s given more than I could have asked for, but I’m still eager for news. Perhaps we’ll find out more in his final episode tonight.
Either way, it will be hard to overstate his impact on the last 16 years of American society, and on an entire generation of Americans. He taught us a lot, but he also taught us how to look at the world. We should be skeptical of what we’re told, but not cynical of how things will or can turn out. We should be patriotic, but not blind to our country’s faults. We should fight for our beliefs and for those less fortunate than ourselves, but we should do it with respect. We shouldn’t ignore the important issues, but shouldn’t be afraid to have a sense of humor. We should learn all we can, read all we can, and discuss all we can. Jon Stewart’s legacy can be measured in awards, in proteges who carry the torch, in the way he influenced journalism, the media, and comedy, or simply in 16 years of fantastic television. But perhaps his biggest legacy is that he showed millions of people how to give a damn.