How often do you hear “It’s the end of an era” and think, “Oh, again?” The phrase has lost the better part of its meaning over the years, since it seems we now require a volcanic cultural apocalypse every month, every day, every hour.
We might be tempted to call Jon Stewart’s exit from “The Daily Show” this Thursday night the end of an era, especially as it arrives on the heels of the departures of David Letterman and “The Colbert Report.” With the boyish likes of Jimmy Fallon and James Corden as the new late-night beacons, we could bemoan the idea that niceness and fan-worship will prevail, and few will be left to combat TV’s army of swollen talking heads.
But to call this the end of an era does a disservice to Stewart and the power of his influence during his brilliant 16-year run on Comedy Central. Many of us will sorely miss him and his weekday rants — including his recent wordless response, with Scooby-like grunting, to Mike Huckabee’s comments equating the US-Iran nuclear deal with the Holocaust — but his accomplishments aren’t leaving with him.
The Stewart Effect will survive long after Stewart has moved on, perhaps to direct more films after “Rosewater,” return to standup comedy, and/or run his animal rescue sanctuary. Just as the openly subjective New Journalism grew out of the 1960s and became a common form of reporting, Stewart’s approach to news — ironic, gleefully impolitic, clip-centric, and ultimately idealistic — has become firmly integrated into our national conversation. On social media, after all, everyone aspires to be a pint-sized Jon Stewart.
When he joined “The Daily Show” in 1999, Stewart was the right person at the right time. He took over the desk from Craig Kilborn and turned the focus from snarky quips about news and pop culture to a closer and more outraged scrutiny of politics, policy, and media. He arrived just in time to police Fox News, which was launched in 1996 and gaining momentum, and then he gained his own momentum in the 2000s by dissecting George W. Bush and his invasion of Iraq while other news outlets were more passive. Finally, he became a voice of reason amid our current cacophony of partisan acrimony, as Congress treats President Obama with the stubbornness of an overtired kindergartner.
Stewart didn’t invent contemporary “fake news,” as his genre is sometimes mistakenly called; “Saturday Night Live,” among others, popularized the form long before he came along. Stewart’s news wasn’t fake; it was a real look at the farcical comedy that politics inherently is. It was about busting hypocrisy and failed promises through satire (“Guantanamo Baywatch”). It was a fact-driven takedown of media deceits and exaggerations (“50 Fox News Lies In 6 Seconds,” the New York Times’s Marco Rubio parking ticket “expose”) and whitewashing (skewering CNBC during the 2008-09 crash for harmful financial reporting). It was a poignant interlude after horrific tragedy (9/11, Charlie Hebdo, the Eric Garner decision, the Charleston murders).
Arguably, though, the defining element of Stewart’s “Daily Show” — and its most potent instrument — was its savvy and damning use of clips. Early in our current era of video ubiquity, an era now marked by incriminating footage of police misuse of force, he presented us with tangible evidence that both politicians and the people who cover them speak out of both sides of their mouths.
Now, Stewart-like appropriation of political and media clips has become a way of life, not just for reporters and critics but for everyone with a computer. He didn’t invent the deployment of clips, of course, but he has been a guiding political spirit of the Web, popularizing how we can take advantage of the material at our disposal on video-sharing sites. Stewart’s departure won’t change the constant flow of fair use justice on Facebook and Twitter, the clips that our friends drop in our newsfeeds. Nor will it change the attitude — the smirking comments, the shouts of disbelief — that accompanies the clips as they travel forth. That era — think of the Donald Trump footage still to come — is far from ending.
Stewart never claimed to be delivering objective truths, in the manner of old-school news anchors; he was ragingly subjective and transparent about his point of view. He was one of us, albeit with extraordinary resources and a pulpit; now, we are all able to be him, to some extent.
Stewart is also leaving us with a few significant protégés, most notably John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” Larry Wilmore of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” former “Daily Show” cast member Samantha Bee, and his as-yet untested replacement, Trevor Noah, all of whom will carry on Stewart’s mission. All of them claim to be comics and entertainers, as has Stewart, but their work often crosses the lines into journalism, particularly Oliver’s reported segments.
Like Stewart, they try to sift out the media histrionics, the constant misstatements, and the talking points, to keep our public conversations as close to the facts as possible. Stewart has also left a mark on the cable-news noise he challenged, most obviously MSNBC anchors such as Rachel Maddow who rely on humor to make their arguments.
And then there are the unofficial protégés, the young people who — according to a number of surveys from the past decade — have learned about politics and became politicized through Stewart. Repeatedly, polls have proven him the most trusted name in news among young-adult viewers. Those people, the ones who will miss him desperately, who are deeply drawn to his jokes, his montages, and his authenticity in a sea of blather, who show their passion for America by scrutinizing and criticizing it, guarantee that Stewart’s influence will have a long shelf life.
With them, in a way, the Stewart era is also just beginning.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of “Last Week Tonight.” It has been corrected.