When the news broke Tuesday night that longtime Daily Show host Jon Stewart would be leaving his post in the coming months, the level of trauma on the internet was palpable. Some expected topics arose, within hours -- minutes, even -- of the announcement trickling out. Why would Stewart leave now? What's his plan? Who should replace him? Could the next Daily Show host be a woman? (Of course). Is this an elaborate ruse for Stewart to take over the NBC Nightly News? (Of course not).
The public conversation over the past two days has been so Stewart-centric that the retirement news effectively pushed NBC anchor Brian Williams's suspension off of social media's front pages. Part of that is the shock; we knew the other shoe was about to drop with (on?) Williams, but Stewart's departure was known only to Comedy Central brass before it was revealed to his studio audience. Part of it is how meme-worthy the parallels between the two hosts truly are ("fake newsman speaks truth, real newsman spins lies," some post on your Twitter timeline probably read). Breaking at the same time, it seems that Stewart's announcement was top news even in the halls of Congress:
So much of the sadness and confusion associated with the loss of the great Jon Stewart is the sense that Stewart was (and is) a wry and stalwart truth-teller, breaking apart the fictions of the 24-hour cable news machine. And he's been great at that. Until his protégé Stephen Colbert perfected a character that fully embodied that machine, Stewart was the best in the business. Colbert exited for greener network pastures, safe in the knowledge that he'd accomplished his mission. And while a Stewart-hosted Daily Show could have stood as an important cultural institution for many more years, it's safe to say that Stewart finished the job as well.
At the risk of saying some vaguely negative things about Stewart (which, at one time in my life, I would have sworn never to do), I would argue that the trauma and confusion is misplaced. We don't need Jon Stewart anymore. It's going to be okay.
It's strange that this thought first dawned on me on Tuesday, mere hours before news of the retirement broke. I had caught up on this clip from Monday's show, in which Stewart issued his much-anticipated response to the Brian Williams scandal.
It's beautiful in its simplicity, and one can only admire the way in which Stewart and his writing staff pivot away from the media pile-on, focusing instead on the news media's tendency to pick and choose which truth claims are worthy of microanalysis (and often getting it wrong). Excellent point, Jon, and particularly interesting in light of its ties to the Iraq War, coverage of which has provided some of the show's richest material over the years.
But there's the rub. This is a point that The Daily Show has made, consistently and expertly, for well over a decade. We get it. Is there any way this point can be made any better?
It's telling (and exciting!) that so many of Stewart's acolytes have used The Daily Show as a proving ground, apprenticed in its satirical tone, and then moved on to fascinating, often profound work. There's Colbert, of course. Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show is surely doing Stewart proud, using his platform as a conversational springboard for all manner of issues that are frequently underrepresented. The critical response has been positive; the ratings will come. Then there's John Oliver, whose Last Week Tonight on HBO has quickly become the standard-bearer for satirical TV news. Rather than target issues of news framing and ethics (Stewart's purview), Oliver systematically deconstructs institutions the news often fails at critiquing, everything from beauty pageants to the pharmaceutical business.
While each host's focus may vary, these shows advance the fundamental mistrust The Daily Show has in the American news media, while retaining trust in their audience. These programs assume a level of intelligence and engagement that few other shows expect in their viewers. Stewart took the reins of The Daily Show as a goofy parody of local news, and turned it into something smart, influential and useful. It transcended mere entertainment. And it has done its job.
Comedy Central is surely scrambling right now, debating not just about host candidates, but about what a future Daily Show should look like. For viewers, the possibilities are tantalizing. Under a new host, the show could satirize the trappings of celebrity. It could re-assume a Colbert-like posture of political (dis)engagement. Maybe it's even time to return to something resembling Craig Kilborn's sarcastic takes on entertainment news and soft-focus human interest pieces.
No matter what, though, Stewart's retirement doesn't leave a void. He's savvy enough to see that new voices, new topics, new perspectives have arrived, and that's largely thanks to him. Stewart got the ball rolling 16 years ago; let's see where it goes.