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Entertainment

Jon Stewart Has Made His Mark on Late-Night TV and on America Itself

After 17 seasons, America's foremost comedy newsman is leaving the late-night landscape in a vastly different state than when he entered it.
August 5, 2015, 7:30am

"Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?" asked the 'New York Times' in 2008. Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

More on Jon Stewart and 'The Daily Show':

Jon Stewart Did a Surprise Stand-Up Set at the Comedy Cellar Last Night
Jon Stewart's Amazing Longevity
The Many Tongues of Trevor Noah

In a television landscape of "late-night wars" and catty putdowns, the transition of talk show leadership has earned a reputation as abrupt and cold-blooded. Yet the last year and a half—the post-Leno era, we'll call it—has resulted in an unprecedented amount of late-night host reshuffling, filled with extended, teary goodbyes and enthused introductions.

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The shakeups began in February 2014, when Jimmy Fallon succeeded Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. That same month Seth Meyers filled Fallon's former desk at Late Night. Less than a year later, in December, The Colbert Report shuttered its gates so that its eponymous host, Stephen Colbert, could begin preparations to helm The Late Show, which the longstanding David Letterman vacated in May of this year. This January, Colbert's cable replacement, Larry Wilmore, premiered The Nightly Show. Two months later, The Late Show's more nocturnal sibling also saw a change of face: Brit James Corden supplanted Scottish-born Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. And of course tomorrow Jon Stewart will air his final episode of The Daily Show, concluding a 16-year run. He will pass off the comedy-news baton to Daily Show correspondent Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old surprise pick from South Africa.

The first episode of 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,' January 11, 1999. Courtesy of Comedy Central

Of all these departures and transitions, Stewart's might be the toughest to take. Letterman was the intellectual heir to Johnny Carson, but the gap-toothed icon is nearing 70 and spent 33 years on network late-night. His resignation saddened many, but shocked few. Meanwhile, 52-year-old Stewart's decision not to renew his Comedy Central contract—especially on the eve of an election—has left people dumbstruck. Like Letterman, he's not leaving one network for another—he's simply leaving our living rooms and laptops.

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To progressive-minded adults, there are few sights more soothing than Stewart furiously scribbling on his blue script as the camera arcs over Comedy Central's world-news headquarters in Hell's Kitchen to the tune of "Dog on Fire" by They Might Be Giants (Stewart's mug is even featured on baby onesies). Since 1999, the eleven o'clock hour has began with the words, "Welcome to The Daily Show. I'm Jon Stewart" followed by exactly 22 minutes of Stewart addressing viewers before bidding farewell with a confounding clip called the Moment of Zen.

Stewart injects the show's four nightly segments with geopolitical lessons and staccato laughs while parsing through duplicitous talking-head sound bites and bantering with his team of satirizing correspondents. Onscreen, Stewart critiques how the 24-hour cable news networks—often aided by paranoia and unnecessary virtual set pieces—deliver the headlines. In turn, the 18-time Emmy-winner's dissection of the news has become, itself, newsworthy. Whether it's his parsing of the Emanuel AME Church murders in Charleston, President Obama's visit to the set in July, or former New York Times journalist Judith Miller's appearance in April—when the comedian greeted Miller with the accusation that she "helped the administration take us to the most devastating mistake in foreign policy that we've made in 100 years"—Stewart has the proven ability to launch a thousand #hottakes.

It's hard to envision Minnesota senator and former SNL castmember Al Franken winning his 2008 and 2014 elections in a climate without Stewart, who helped solidify the suspicion that our funniest people might also be our smartest people.

Although the idea of a "political comedian" entered our cultural lexicon with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, today Bill Maher, Marc Maron, and Stewart have resuscitated the genre. Stewart may claim to be just a comedian, like he did when former Crossfire host Tucker Carlson objected to Stewart calling him a partisan hack in 2004 and Stewart deadpanned, "You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls." Yet in 2008, long after Crossfire was cancelled, critic Michiko Kakutani asked in a New York Times headline, "Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?"

Since then, the former stand-up and MTV host has wielded actual legislative influence. For instance, earlier this year, when Stewart ridiculed the archaic wording of the Choice Program offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs—which only offered medical coverage to individuals who lived within 40 "as-the-crow-flies" miles of certain Virginia facilities—the statute was changed to include those living within 40 drivable miles. Back in 2010, an estimated quarter of a million people marched alongside Stewart and Colbert in their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, a response to conservative pundit Glenn Beck's Rally to Restore Honor. President Obama even welcomed Stewart to the White House twice to talk politics. It's hard to envision Minnesota senator and former SNL cast member Al Franken winning his 2008 and 2014 elections in a climate without Stewart, who helped solidify the suspicion that our funniest people might also be our smartest people.

On Motherboard: Activists Sent a Love Letter to Jon Stewart by Hacking Donald Trump

Prior to Stewart, comedian Craig Kilborn hosted The Daily Show for three seasons. When Stewart got the gig, the title of the program was lengthened to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart , rebranding the series as Comedy Central content awarded the Stewart stamp of approval. This precedent will continue with Stewart's successor when The Daily Show with Trevor Noah premieres on September 28.

Despite the tweak to the title, The Daily Show brand has become synonymous with Stewart's signature blend of sincerity, indignation, and snark. Despite the seemingly plum job, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, and Amy Schumer all turned downthe opportunity to host the newest incarnation of The Daily Show. "I think that was his show," C.K. told me on the red carpet of Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary special in February 2015.

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Stewart first emerged as a bona-fide deliverer of the news when Comedy Central asked him to anchor their election coverage in 2000. Because Stewart has proved himself able to unravel election spin (and a desk-side chat with him has become practically a political rite of passage), the thought of next year's contest without Stewart on the scene only increases our national malaise toward the growing list of candidates.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has proved a mainstream talent incubator on par with SNL or American Idol.

Another reason politicians may have begun paying more attention to Stewart was the publication of his New York Times best-seller America: The Book, which he wrote with his Daily Show scribes. The 2004 tome—a faux textbook with a foreword "by" Thomas Jefferson—was banned for sale at outlets like Walmart for featuring a Photoshopped rendering of the nine Supreme Court Justices naked. After the success of America, publishers were much more inclined to ink book deals with comedians (see subsequent releases by Daily Show correspondents Lewis Black, Samanthe Bee, and Stephen Colbert).

Stewart's reputation recently took a hit when news of an altercation revolving around the 2012 election surfaced. Last month, former Daily Show writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac recalled the dust-up on an episode of WTF with Marc Maron. When Cenac, then the show's sole black writer, confronted Stewart about what he felt was an insensitive impression of black Republican candidate Herman Cain, the host allegedly told Cenac, "Fuck off! I'm done with you." Cenac left the show one month after the election.

During Stewart's penultimate week, the show averaged about 1.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, about 200,000 less than the latest episode of Teen Mom on MTV. Still, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has proved a mainstream talent incubator on par with SNL or American Idol. Former correspondents Colbert, Wilmore, and John Oliver each went on to host their own programs, and retired correspondent Samantha Bee has her own TBS talk show in the works. In 2000, Steve Carrell—who this year earned an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher—left his correspondent post to concentrate on feature films. When Stewart took a summer hiatus in 2013 to direct the film Rosewater, John Oliver served as interim host, asserting himself as Stewart's presumed successor. Instead, Oliver inked a deal with HBO and developed an acclaimed weekly series called Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver have all won Peabody Awards for their shows, the highest honor in broadcasting).

Last week, Stewart dropped by for a ten-minute set at the Comedy Cellar, taking his first crack at stand-up in over a decade. Hopefully, this means that the man who once called FOX "the lupus of news" will remain a public figure in his post– Daily Show life (he's stepping down to spend more time with his wife and two children and to run an animal-rescue mission in New Jersey). The only upside to losing this comedy-news hero? Chances of a real-life Jon Stewart sighting just increased significantly.

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