After nearly 17 years as the star, Jon Stewart tried his best to make his final night at The Daily Show about anyone but himself—and he almost succeeded. On Thursday, Stewart wheeled out a parade of current and former correspondents, aired taped goodbyes from longtime rivals, and paid tribute to the show’s behind-the-scenes crew with a lengthy, faux-single-shot segment. When his longtime correspondent and friend Stephen Colbert appeared to give an impromptu speech about Stewart’s contribution to their lives, the host squirmed in his chair, choking up, waiting for the moment to end. It was a warm reminder that for all the lionizing of Stewart’s TV persona over the years, he’s always been happy to share the spotlight.
Sure, there were many moments during his tenure where Stewart would use the show as a platform to bring about change he cared about. Every look back at the history of The Daily Show includes his impassioned on-air rant against CNN’s Crossfire (which led to its swift cancellation), his advocacy for the James Zadroga Act that provides healthcare for Ground Zero workers, his “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Washington Mall. But Stewart was first and foremost a comedian, and from start to finish, it was clear he took the most delight in playing the befuddled straight man as his correspondents and guests acted out opposite him.
When Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, it was nothing more than a Comedy Central take on the classic late-night show, crunched into a bite-sized half-hour and focusing mostly on the day’s pop-culture tidbits. Under Craig Kilborn, it was a lot of Monica Lewinsky jokes and segments like “This Day in Hasselhoff History.” Stewart refocused on news and politics and allowed correspondents like Colbert to define their own “characters” on the show. That way, their bits together felt less like scripted banter and more like an ongoing dialogue between Stewart’s sane but exasperated host and the ever-louder, ever-crazier voices of the pundit world.
It was a beat that seemed to expand with every passing year the show aired, but Stewart’s frustration always stayed on the same even keel that he showed on that Crossfire appearance. While he was happy to joke around about it night after night, he genuinely thought the nightly structure of a right vs. left debate that played out on news channels was harming the country. When Stewart announced his decision to retire from The Daily Show earlier this year, he referenced a growing weariness at his role as cable-news watchdog, saying, “This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host and neither do you.” As he signed off, that weariness was apparent.
“Bullshit is everywhere,” Stewart told the camera in last night’s episode, his one big sendoff moment that actually focused on him, a final screed against a polarized news media and obfuscating political class that drove him so gently mad over the last 16-and-a-half years. “The good news is this: bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time, like an I Spy of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, my friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance—so if you smell something, say something.”
It was the kind of speech (to his old friend, Camera Three) that Stewart often delivered, sometimes manic, sometimes sarcastic, in his tenure on the show. In later years, these monologues became their own strange form of online content, producing endless streams of aggregated articles demanding the viewer watch him “destroy” or “eviscerate” some politician or pressing issue. But Stewart (to his credit) was never much of an online creature. His rants served not to destroy, but to shake the viewer out of a supposed reverie, to grab the audience by the lapels and remind them not to listen to the noise of cable news, that the correct answer was usually the most rational one.
Over the years, younger audiences came to rely on Stewart as some strange blend of moral polestar and media truth-teller. Stewart liked to loudly insist that The Daily Show was just “the fake news,” and that he was a simple joke-huckster having a little fun at Fox News’s expense, but by the time he was staging a rally on the Washington Mall, he clearly had an understanding of his generational appeal. The way he stayed relevant, though, was by keeping the show light and funny 99 percent of the time, allowing new crops of correspondents to come through and make their own stamps on the show, and never hijacking his fame for cheap hits.
So while Stewart’s farewell monologue on bullshit was certainly on brand, Colbert’s unscripted goodbye (which, delightfully, caught Stewart off-guard) was the emotional high point of the evening. “We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect,” Colbert said as Stewart buried his face in his hands. “I know you are not asking for this, but on behalf of so many people whose lives you changed over the past 16 years: Thank you.”
Though Colbert was speaking for the large cast and crew who have passed through The Daily Show studio over the years, he also tapped into the sentiments of a grateful audience. Like Carson or Letterman, Stewart defined intelligent broadcast comedy for a generation of TV-watchers, and his show always had the kind of intent, clarity and intelligence Colbert spoke of, defined by a community larger than its titular star. For 16 years, The Daily Show was a reliable source of perceptive criticism that never forgot to be funny, and that alone is an achievement the medium may find impossible to match.