I have a confession: I have long harbored a secret fantasy that I would one day be a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I knew exactly how I would approach it: I’d find a way to make it about him, to thank him for having the courage to take a silly little news parody show, a half-hour Weekend Update, and turn it into a substantive critique of governance, politics, and media culture. There was no way for him to know that formula would succeed–that people in their teens and 20’s and 30’s would not only take a sudden interest in policy, but come to view him as their most trusted name in news, but he did it anyway. I’d tell him why I think he is the one to thank for President Barack Obama (because he made politics cool) and then I’d ask for a hug. If there was any time left, I’d maybe talk about my book or whatever I was there to plug, but if I didn’t even get around to it that somehow felt better.
I knew it would never happen–even if I was somehow fortunate enough to write best-selling novels, Jon’s preference for door-stopping nonfiction is well established. But now there’s another reason it will never happen: The day has finally come, that tragic day we all knew was inevitable, and Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show.
I can’t say I bear him any ill will; he’s been behind that desk for nearly two decades, and as he said on last night’s show, he’d like to have dinner with his family on a school night. He’s seemed frankly a little bored with the show in recent years, and if I’m really honest I think the writing has begun to decline. The supply of comedy writers with a sharp take on politics has probably spread too thin over the years between Jon Stewart, Colbert, Bill Maher, SNL, Last Week Tonight, Veep, podcasts, original online series…the list goes on. Jon Stewart didn’t invent a show, he shaped a whole industry, and after 17 years it’s reasonable to want to do something new.
I realize every middle-class white liberal is now caught in an existential crisis, and many will take to the Internet to compose their summer theme, What The Daily Show Meant to Me. In all honestly, though, I think there was a good portion of the 2000’s when Jon Stewart and The Daily Show kept me sane.
There was 9/11, of course. Jon Stewart’s tearful return to broadcast is still the one message that stays in my head, above all others. Something about watching him expose his pain, barely holding it together as he reflected (pointlessly, by his own estimation) on what had happened in the city he loved, and then doing his best to polish that turd and find some redeeming message of hope amidst the tragedy, brings me back to watch that clip online at least once every few years. I cry every time, and it always feels good. Like bloodletting.
Then came the Bush empire, of course, when that shred of hope we pulled out of 9/11 was shoved into our mouths and soaked to simulate drowning, when we as Americans saw our patriotism turned into a weapon to abuse and manipulate us. There were days when the news weighed so heavily on me that I thought I could never again believe in anything. I worked at the ACLU for some of that time, and was intimately familiar with each nuance and detail of the abuses that emerged into the public eye: domestic spying, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo.
Yet every night (well, four nights a week, when they weren’t on one of those frequent extended breaks) I could turn on The Daily Show and for a half hour Jon Stewart would find a way to make me laugh at those stories, even though his own outrage and disgust was never hard to see.
That was, perhaps, Stewart’s most admirable quality aside from his humor: Though he was often outraged, he was never whiny. He approached America not with the condescending finger-wag of the liberal, but the exasperation of a high school sports coach who knows we can do better but can’t understand why we aren’t even fucking trying. Jon Stewart’s idealism became a weapon, not to be underestimated: In his famous appearance on Crossfire in 2004, hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala both tried to weasel out from under Stewart’s criticism by calling him shrill and unfunny, but America wasn’t buying it–and neither was CNN president Jonathan Klein, who agreed with Stewart when he canceled the show.
The Daily Show was arguably the most influential television program of the last 20 years–if not for its own contributions, then for the contributions of its many spinoffs and imitators. The show may go on without him, and it may be great, but it will never again be Jon Stewart’s brand of great. That’s exactly what I would have told him, if I ever got to sit on the opposite side of that desk. [For the record I also would have checked to see how more people don’t fall backwards, because wheelie chairs on that small platform just seem really dangerous.] Since I will now definitely never get to do that, all I can do is post it here.
I don’t blame Jon Stewart, and I wish him the best, but I can hardly think of any greater loss for America.