When Jon Stewart goes off the air later this year, it won’t play out as a gauzy farewell tour, a heartwarming farewell to a late-night host whose glory days are long behind him. Stewart is 52, and he’s been hosting The Daily Show for 16 years, but there’s a reason the abrupt news of his retirement has sent everyone (including Comedy Central) to their panic stations. This isn’t like Letterman retiring in May after 33 years, or Johnny Carson, who called it quits after 30. The Daily Show remains a keystone in the television landscape, an essential check on the unending flubs and offenses of cable news, particularly with a presidential election around the corner. Judging by the tenor of responses on social media, few are ready to see him go.
There have always been murmurs that Stewart might want to move on to greener pastures—like network TV, perhaps, as his former wingman Stephen Colbert will do this year at CBS, or a more manageable weekly show on a cable network, like Stewart's protégé (and, in 2013, his replacement for eight weeks) John Oliver. It's also plausible that Stewart could become a full-time filmmaker—his directorial debut, Rosewater, didn’t make too big a splash last year, but was a thoughtful, proudly political, quietly significant effort that showed real promise.
Still, his retirement announcement came so abruptly, spilling out via Twitter after he addressed his audience at Tuesday taping, that it feels like a decision Stewart could have finally made only yesterday. Colbert’s replacement Larry Wilmore—hand-picked by Stewart and off to a fine start—has only just started his run at The Nightly Show. Colbert, Stewart’s most obvious successor, hasn’t even made the jump to CBS yet. Oliver only started work on HBO’s Last Week Tonight last year, after his exemplary work behind the Daily Show desk in 2013 as Stewart filmed Rosewater anointed him for late-night fame. Even Comedy Central’s statement on Stewart’s announcement sounded as if executives had been caught off-guard, with no specific end date set.
This is not how late night retirements usually go. The ceremonial nature of Letterman’s farewell echoes that of his mentor Carson, who practically had to be dragged off his set after weeks of guests bidding him farewell. Early in his career, Stewart seemed on the path to follow in Letterman’s footsteps, vaulting to quasi-fame as a guest on Letterman’s Late Night and twice making the shortlist to replace him (Conan O’Brien was eventually chosen for that gig, and Stewart later declined to take the timeslot after The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder). He launched a short-lived MTV talk show and various other projects before being tapped to replace Craig Kilborn at The Daily Show in 1999.
While Stewart would no doubt credit Letterman as a serious influence, he was never quite so happy to embrace the absurd in his comedy. But both shared an aggressive subversive quality, a desire to tear down walls and challenge figures of authority. In the Bush years, which began not long after Stewart took over The Daily Show, the host's willingness to swipe at every hagiography or exaggeration presented by politicians and media alike made him the most trusted man on television in an era of profound cynicism. Among his “correspondents,” Stewart fostered a talented pool of comedians who became hugely successful on their own—Colbert, Oliver, Wilmore, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Wyatt Cenac, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams, John Hodgman, Michael Che, and many more.
Stewart’s mix of incisiveness and exasperation has produced too many incredible rants, speeches, and scripted bits to enumerate—watch any episode from any year of The Daily Show and there will be soundbites and YouTube-ready highlights galore. If 2015 really is the end of Stewart’s late-night career, it’s as strong an ending as any player in TV history could ask for.