The House That Jon Stewart Built

The comedian's style of left-wing humor ran low on targets, but his legacy will endure.

Victoria Will/Invision/AP

For most of his 15-year tenure helming The Daily Show, Jon Stewart had a rogues’ gallery worthy of the name: A buffoonish, chuckling George W. Bush, a sinister Dick Cheney whose hunting mishap Stewart never forgot, Donald Trump and his bizarre habit of eating pizza with a fork, Jim Cramer and the false prophets of CNBC who failed to predict the Great Recession, an endless stream of Fox News anchors and pundits, and countless others. Politics itself had become comical, and Stewart rode the wave.

Stewart’s style of left-wing humor fed on the absurdity of his mostly conservative targets. His tried-and-true format was the clip-joke-clip-joke segment he’d use to open the show. First, he’d run a clip of a member of Congress or news anchor saying something absurd, followed by Stewart’s puzzled reaction—the straight-man foil to the news cycle’s comic tendencies. He’d then ask a reasonable question or make a reasonable inference, only to see his presumptions defeated by an even-more-absurd clip. Eventually, the tit-for-tat of real-world footage and Stewart’s incredulous mockery would crescendo into a short, semi-comedic insight, and then he’d cut to his first commercial break. The Daily Show had other segments, and Stewart often adjusted the format when necessary: A classic 2011 episode where he redesigned his set and personal mannerisms to mock then-Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck stands out. But the underlying mechanisms remained reliably funny.

This format works best it focuses on a single, discrete entity for mockery, whether it’s as nebulous as “cable news” or “the Republicans” or as specific as Sarah Palin. Today’s political landscape mostly lacks foes of that caliber. The 2008 election deprived Stewart of his greatest target, and George W. Bush’s replacement didn’t help much, either. Liberal comedians haven’t been afraid to mock Democratic presidents before: Jay Leno, according to one study, told 4,607 jokes about Bill Clinton during his reign on the The Tonight Show. Liberals then caricatured Bush as unintelligent and hapless. His tendency for poorly worded phrases—“Is our children learning?”—and ill-conceived policy decisions like invading Iraq made it an easy sell.

The dearth of targets goes beyond the White House. Also gone are the Michele Bachmanns, Herman Cains, and Glenn Becks of yesteryear; jokes about John Boehner’s skin tone and Mitch McConnell’s droopy jowls only go so far these days. Even Fox News became so over-the-top in the Obama era that it’s almost beyond parody. You could see it in one of the segments before Stewart’s announcement last night, when a Fox News host earnestly said in a clip that the President of the United States “puts the Koran first and the Constitution second” when fighting ISIS.

Liberalism hasn’t won, of course—it just ran out of easy targets. The Koch brothers now loom large as liberal adversaries, but they rarely give interviews and certainly don’t make clip-worthy gaffes. The GOP primary field for 2016 runs a dull gamut from Jeb Bush and Scott Walker to Rand Paul and Marco Rubio—hardly an inherently comedic set of candidates. Maybe this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Establishment Republicans set out to purge the more extreme Tea Party members during the 2014 primaries, leaving fewer candidates like Todd Akin or Christine O’Donnell with easily mockable gaffes on “legitimate rape” or witchcraft. Their efforts largely succeeded, to both their electoral success and Stewart’s loss.

News cycles also became considerably darker in recent months, and the toll became apparent. In his tribute after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last month, Stewart called the cartoonists’ deaths “a stark reminder that, for the most part, the legislators and journalists and institutions that we jab and ridicule are not, in any way, the enemy.” In his first episode after Ferguson last August, Stewart doubled his opening segment’s length to excoriate Fox’s coverage of the unrest. As he piled one absurd clip after another with a prizefighters’ staccato, his light tone gradually slipped away as he spoke about discrimination experienced by his own colleagues. “Race is there, and it’s a constant,” he said in the end of the segment, all levity gone. “You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.” Everybody clapped. Nobody laughed. Stewart looked drained.

That doesn’t mean that the pugilistic, explanatory style of comedy news that Stewart pioneered will disappear as he leaves The Daily Show. The issues that liberal comedic journalism now sets itself against have become more nuanced, and Stewart’s acolytes have adapted accordingly. On HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver uses Stewart’s clip-joke-clip-joke formula not to skewer yet another random Fox personality, but to untangle complex subjects for his audience, ranging from civil asset forfeiture to the wealth gap. (My personal favorite is his segment on mass incarceration.) The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, which replaced Stephen Colbert in the 11:30 hour, is what Meet the Press is supposed to be: an intelligent, diverse panel show featuring sharp guests and a deft host. And it’s funny too!

The idea that what Jon Stewart and his team did was journalism always rankled some journalists, but that’s exactly what it was. At its most fundamental level, the purpose of journalism in a democracy is to build a more informed citizenry. For many Americans, especially younger ones, Stewart fulfilled that task. And it seems to be a duty his successors are eager to take up: As he began his new season last week, John Oliver expanded the Last Week Tonight staff not by adding more comedy writers, but by hiring investigative journalists.

Stewart didn’t say what his next work would be in his announcement on Tuesday night, or even if there would be any. He hinted at spending more time with his family, who, he joked, “I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people.” He’s still young, though, and many of the issues that Stewart skewered night after night still exist. Al Franken’s combination of political satire and low-key activism led to a seat in the United States Senate. Maybe “the most trusted man in America” will consider a similar path now too.