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Jon Stewart's Amazing Longevity

The "Daily Show" host took on the Herculean task of making the news funny for 16 years, and in the process became unexpectedly respected.

by Joe Garden
Feb 11 2015, 6:09pm

Photo via Flickr user Rich Jones

Over the past 12 hours, my Facebook feed has been blowing up with the news of Jon Stewart's retirement. People have been pouring out their love for the host of The Daily Show, eulogizing him as if he had ben diagnosed with cancer instead of leaving one of Comedy Central's most popular shows at the top of his game. Not me. I'm happy for him—he's finally going to be able to take a break.

When he took over The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (previously known only as The Daily Show) in 1999, it didn't register with me at all. My familiarity with it was marginal. On occasion, I checked in on the fratty goings-on of the show's first incarnation of the show (staring... what's his name? Oh yeah, Craig Robinson!) and was duly amused by his five-questions-smashed-head graphic. I knew little about Jon Stewart; he was a television guy who had hosted a talk show on MTV (points deducted for the lameness of network) and appeared as himself on The Larry Sanders Show (points recouped for being on The Larry Fucking Sanders Show).

Even though I knew two people who were instrumental in launching the retooled version of the show—Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum, both former colleagues at The Onion—I wasn't really interested in watching. If anything, the connection made me a little anxious. Karlin and Javerbaum were talented people who, seemingly, couldn't break out of the fake news medium. So what chance did an unambitious hack such as myself have of establishing a career?

It turns out that my real shortcoming was not my lack of ambition, but my lack of vision. I never dreamed that people would clamor to see a politician be taken down by a comedy show, let alone that a politician would be willing to appear on that show to sit down for some real talk that "actual" journalists couldn't deliver. And it sure as hell never dawned on me that people would start treating a comedy show as an actual news source.

The Daily Show's runaway popularity aside, making jokes about the news can take a toll that might not be immediately apparent from outside. I mean, sure, there are dozens of monologue writers that will write thousands of jokes about a man getting his dick chopped off, but to have a take on real injustices just hours after they happen? That's draining.

For example, at The Onion *, we would make a joke about, say, the run-up to war in Iraq. We'd brainstorm, pitch, write, and hone, a funny, pointed story about it. We'd feel good for a bit, because we had done our job. But the next week, nothing would have changed. The same story would dominate the news cycle, and we'd try to come up with a different comedic way to express our outrage about the topic.

(*I'm sorry. I'm not just "The Onion Guy," I swear. It just happens to be pertinent to the topic at hand.)

And it goes on, and on, and on, and on. After doing this for so long, the internal take you come up with is, "This is horrible, and we are horrible people for trying to find humor in this." Writing satire like that is tilting at windmills, only the windmills grow larger with every blow, and you hate yourself more and more for participating in the pointlessness.

Stewart's been at it for 16 years. SIXTEEN. And in that time, he's increased his ratings 400 percent, spun off two successful shows, and helped launch many, many comedy careers. But with every passing year, you could see the toll hosting the show was taking. He got grayer, more serious, his smirk narrowing into a frown at times. The distance between the news and the jester who was supposed to be mocking it shrunk, and his sputtering mock outrage turned into a more pointed anger. He and his writing staff were so good that they could make that stuff work, but by 2010's Rally to Restore Sanity, it was clear that Stewart wasn't "just" a comedian, something the host has long claimed.

That has always struck me as a bit of a dodge. The Daily Show presents news; more so than most journalistic broadcasts, the comedy program can pick and choose what stories to focus on. This, fairly or otherwise, dictates what a large segment of the population knows and thinks about an event or newsmaker. Stewart may have started his career as a Conan O'Brien–esque jokester, but he ends his Daily Show run as something of an elder statesman—one 2014 survey found that liberals trusted him more than MSNBC or CNN.

It's not fair to say that Stewart "outgrew" making fun of the news, but it seems clear that he wanted to do things and tell stories he couldn't from his desk. The writing was on the wall when he announced that he was going to direct an adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari's book Then They Came for Me, which turned into the movie Rosewater.

Some people are now whispering that maybe Jon Stewart is the man to take over for Brian Williams as anchor of the NBC Nightly News, and the timing of his announcement, so close to Williams's suspension, is too convenient. I strongly doubt that's the case. I hope it's not. TV news is broken. The hunt for ratings leads to emphasis on more bullshit stories than news that affects people; Stewart himself has proven that there are better models for information dissemination.

I hope Stewart takes several months off to rest and reflect, and when he comes back, it will be to find better ways to make people care about the stories they would otherwise never hear about. It's what he does best.

Joe Garden is currently a freelance writer and performer; in the past, he was a writer and features editor for the Onion, but has now fled society to live unencumbered by responsibility. Follow him on Twitter.