You didn’t expect the announcement that one night on February 10, 2015. Those words hung impossibly in the air: Jon Stewart. Leaving The Daily Show.
In hindsight, you can see the progression of Jon Stewart’s decision to leave. You could see it in the way he looked at Bob Odenkirk when he joked about how long Stewart had been doing his show. You could see it in his progressively greying hair and in the way he wouldn’t so much joke about but shout at what he considered the bullshit in American society. While you couldn’t read his mind, the decision Jon Stewart had to make about leaving the show had to be one that stewed in his brain. It was a longtime coming.
During Stewart’s last episode, previous correspondent and future host of The Late Show on CBS, Stephen Colbert suddenly goes off prompter. Stewart absolutely squirms like a ant under a child’s thumb as he knows what’s coming, and doesn’t like it. He looks so passionately agonized as Colbert tells him how much he has affected the people around him by elevating their careers and giving an example of how to give their satire its biting edge. He is smiling, in pain, and he is crying.
There was a genuine melancholy to The Daily Show’s last episode with Stewart at the helm. He brought on all of his old correspondents, who hugged before one commercial break. Even his behind the scenes crew all got their small moment of attention. This was not so much a celebration of the 16 and a half years of The Daily Show’s run, but a funeral one might give to the leader of a group of freedom fighters.
What can we see about the impact of Jon Stewart? Base numbers don’t give him much favor. No matter how much the media has talked about The Daily Show and Jon Stewart’s part in it, his influence has always been in question. At the height of his popularity, his show pulled in a total of approximately 1.3 million viewers towards the end of its run. To put that in perspective, Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show has 3.7 million viewers on average each night.
His audience was young, almost restrictively so. A Pew Research survey said 74 percent of Daily Show Viewers were between 18 and 49 years of age. Another Pew poll said that just as many people trusted it as there was those who distrusted it.
Just the fact that his name has always been in the news explains just why people cared about Jon Stewart. Enough that his promoters and detractors at the political, media and street level all had an opinion about the weekday satirist. During the final episode, they brought in people Stewart has lambasted like Hillary Clinton, John McCain and even the oft maligned CEO of Arby’s Paul Brown, to give their own sarcastic send off to one of their sharpest critics.
His popularity is more than just imagined. For such an opinionated man, Jon Stewart still managed to appear humble. He rarely allowed interviews, even as his show winded down. He constantly denied biographies, and he hated seeing anybody give him praise or remembrance. He hated the idea that anybody called his show a news show.
Stewart was so adamant that it wasn’t such. His constant mantra was that the show was a comedy show. In some ways it was true. For all of the examples of him taking on the regime; how he helped bring an end to CNN’s Crossfire after appearing on their show and his support of the bill to help cover healthcare costs of first responders of 9/11. Yet, his crusades did not always bring direct change. Such as, his bringing Larry Cramer to the show to absolutely stomp him in an argument did little to change Cramer’s content or demeanor on Mad Money or the whole of CNBC’s financial coverage.
There are other crusading pundits out there. Bill Maher has his own left leaning following, while just as many people support news pundits like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. If you take it all in like some big vacuum of the media space, it seems like the world has gone and cracked itself in two. The divide between two almost identical ideologies has never been wider. The news has not stopped its blunt force trauma of the American identity. Politics and news have both become about entertaining the audience and less about creating a worldwide discussion.
But what separates Stewart from any other satirist or late night commentator was his simple honesty. He was the entertainer that told truth as he saw it while so many other news people slid into entertainment. You could disagree with him, in some ways he encouraged it, but he never said anything he did not necessarily agree with.
There has rarely been such trust between the audience and a show host. Before the last episode aired, Lewis Black, a longtime correspondent and commentator on The Daily Show, called Stewart the “Walter Cronkite of his generation.”
Stewart would most likely hate that description but in some ways, it is completely true.
Jon Stewart’s last show happened just after the Republican primary debate hosted on Fox. His show wasn’t able to lampoon on the obscene number of politicians harping on the same talking points. But in a speech he gave to his audience, he described his career as merely a discussion with his audience, one that is truly never ending. In his last words , he warned about bullshit in all the forms it comes in, whether it’s obvious, or it is cleverly hidden.
“Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”