After 16 1/2 years of masterful satire and wit, Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” with a warm and sincere hour-long episode that he refused to call a goodbye.
“It’s a pause in the conversation,” Stewart said in his last remarks at the end of the finale. “So rather than saying goodbye or good night, I’m just going to say: I’m going to go get a drink. And I’m sure I’ll see you guys before I leave.”
It came from the heart, without tears but with a few cracks in his voice. And then Stewart introduced his final Moment of Zen: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rocking the studio with, at Stewart’s request, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” with its event-appropriate lyrics: “You don’t know where you’re going now / But you know you won’t be back.” And after that, a bit of “Born to Run,” with the cast and staff dancing along.
Before Stewart’s last words, with its plea for us to fight all the bull — “If you smell something,” he said, “say something” — Stewart opened the show with a spirited gathering of “Daily Show” correspondents past and present. The list was epic, and a testimony to all the talent that Stewart has fostered and unleashed into the entertainment sphere.
Among the faces: Steve Carell, Larry Wilmore, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, Ed Helms, Olivia Munn, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry, Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, successor Trevor Noah (who was seen eagerly measuring the set), and Darth Vader, the Senior Evil Correspondent.
Even Wyatt Cenac, who recently criticized Stewart on Marc Maron’s podcast, was on hand with an intentionally awkward farewell.
“I’d love to see you,” Stewart said.
“I’ll think about it,” Cenac replied. “My social media is blowing up.”
The highlights of the correspondent parade included appearances by John Oliver, now on HBO, and Stephen Colbert, who appeared to go off-script for a short tribute, the night’s most earnest moment.
“You were infuriatingly good at your job,” Colbert said. “All of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours, and we are better people for having known you. You are a great artist and a good man.”
The parade also featured snarky goodbyes from a number of politicians and TV news figures — including John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, Hillary Clinton, Wolf Blitzer, and, of course, Bill O’Reilly — who had all been on the other side of Stewart’s jokes. Senator John McCain, with a Jon Stewart puppet, said, “So long, jackass.”
Craig Kilborn, who hosted “The Daily Show” before Stewart, also had something to say. “You’re finally getting canceled, Jon,” he joked. “I hate to say it but I knew you were going to run this thing into the ground.”
Like David Letterman, who bid farewell in May, Stewart devoted a segment of his finale to the people who work at the show. But Stewart’s backstage glimpse was livelier and more vivid than Letterman’s, with a long tracking shot modeled after a scene from Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas.” Scorsese appeared in the segment, complaining about being ripped off.
“The people here never fail to have my back,” Stewart said, noting how deeply he would miss not just the show, but “the process of the show.” If his audience thought Stewart was a lone genius, the backstage segment reminded them that he was part of a team.
It was a satisfying conclusion to Stewart’s influential run, which has aroused endless tributes since he announced his departure in February. With all the hype, the hour could easily have seemed underwhelming. But Stewart and friends lived up to the moment beautifully. The tone was genuine and the testimonials were heartfelt but never overdone or theatrical.
There was nothing grandiose or artificial about this late-night exit, nothing, I’m betting, that would have excited the kind of mockery Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” excelled at.