Jon Stewart, who helped shape the political and cultural attitudes of a generation with some of the brainiest satire that television has ever seen, announced Tuesday that he will step down from his perch at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show’’ later this year.
“It’s been an absolute privilege,’’ said Stewart, who struggled with his emotions at times as he made the announcement at the end of his show Tuesday night. “It’s been the honor of my professional life.’’
Hinting at the reason he is leaving, Stewart told the studio audience and the television audience beyond: “This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.’’ An audience member cried out: “We love you, Jon!’’
Whenever Stewart departs the show he has hosted since 1999, it will leave a major vacuum. What Walter Cronkite was to an earlier generation — an utterly trusted voice — Stewart has been to millennials. The key difference, of course, was that Stewart was schooled not in journalism but in comedy, and he was a purveyor, as he often reminded us, of “fake news.’’
Yet the reality is that Stewart’s devastatingly witty mock newscast-with-commentary often seemed closer to the truth than the news delivered with straight faces by sonorous network anchors. His stock rose as the media’s credibility sank.
Indeed, in one of those you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up coincidences, NBC News announced Tuesday night that anchor Brian Williams has been suspended by the network for six months without pay, after he admitted that his story about being in a helicopter that came under enemy fire in Iraq was false. (In keeping with his neither-fear-nor-favor approach, Stewart had lampooned Williams, who performed winningly during guest stints on “The Daily Show,’’ during Monday night’s show. Commenting on the media feeding frenzy over Williams, Stewart remarked sardonically: “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.”)
Stewart’s genius — and for once that overused word is appropriate — lay in the way he turned “The Daily Show’’ into must-see-TV by presiding over an ongoing counter-narrative to the official pronouncements of Washington policy makers and to the media’s coverage of those pronouncements.
As “The Daily Show’’ won nearly two dozen Emmy Awards along the way, Stewart helped raise television’s collective IQ not just with his own razor-sharp satire of elected officials and media figures, but also by playing a direct role in boosting the careers of onetime “Daily Show’’ regulars such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Larry Wilmore, all of whom got their own impact-making shows.
Stewart regularly rejected suggestions that he wielded enormous influence, claiming he was just a comedian, but those assertions were never persuasive.
A decade ago, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than one-fifth of 18- to 29-year-olds got their presidential campaign news from “The Daily Show’’ and “Saturday Night Live.’’
I can attest to that phenomenon firsthand. For the past dozen years, I’ve taught at a local university, and in the first class of each semester I ask my students what their primary news sources are. Invariably, several of them reply: “Jon Stewart.’’
During the presidency of George W. Bush, especially during the Iraq war, Stewart emerged as a one-man opposition party, far more vigorous than the Democrats in Congress. At the end of 2004, Entertainment Weekly bypassed the usual movie stars and rock singers to name him “Entertainer of the Year.’’ When CNN pulled the plug on its long-running political debate show “Crossfire,’’ a top CNN executive said that he agreed wholeheartedly with Stewart’s scathing criticism of the show.
While he was a guest on “Crossfire,’’ Stewart had told the hosts that their partisan shoutfests were “hurting America.’’ It was just one of several memorable Stewart takedowns.
The extent of his influence was underscored when Dan Rather stepped down as anchor of the “CBS Evening News’’ and the head of CBS told television critics that he was contemplating a multianchor format that could include a role for Stewart.
“For the better part of the last two decades, I have had the incredible honor and privilege of working with Jon Stewart,” Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless said in a statement Tuesday night. “His comedic brilliance is second to none. Jon has been at the heart of Comedy Central, championing and nurturing the best talent in the industry, in front of and behind the camera. Through his unique voice and vision, ‘The Daily Show’ has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans and an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come.’’
Stewart’s announcement of his upcoming departure comes just two months after Colbert wrapped up “The Colbert Report.’’ (Colbert will take over David Letterman’s late-night show on CBS later this year, but he will abandon his persona as an arch-conservative blowhard.) They were a one-two punch for the ages. Airing back to back, Stewart and Colbert made us laugh and think — about the news, and about the people who deliver it.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.