On Thursday night, Jon Stewart will take his final bow as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a post he has held for 16 years and four presidential election cycles.
Stewart’s exit brings to a close an era in which the sardonic comedian became, despite himself, the most trusted man in news. The “angry optimist” who played court jester to the media-political machine and ended up becoming one of its most highly regarded and credible luminaries — much to his exasperation.
Although he often deprecated himself as a spitball-throwing silly man of the airwaves, he was anything but inessential. Here are eight reasons why he will be so dearly missed, and why we’re not about to see the likes of him again.
Stewart on Crossfire
Jon Stewart’s 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire turned out to be the death knell of the show. Stewart appeared on the long-running liberal-conservative rock-em-sock-em sideshow at the height of its hysterical election coverage to beg them to dial down the infotainment antics and return to informing the American public. The show, he said, was not so much bad, as it was “hurting America.”
“Stop. Stop stop stop stop hurting America. And come work for us… see the thing is, we need your help. Right now you’re helping the politicians and corporations. […] You’re partisan… whaddya call it? Hacks.”
In a decidedly unamused tone, Stewart accused the pundits of failing in their responsibility to the public discourse: “We need help from the media and they’re hurting us.”
Three months later, CNN canceled the show.
Setting Chris Wallace straight
Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire was not a fluke. The beleaguered comedian often had to explain to pundits and media personalities what a sad state of affairs it was when media professionals looked to the class clown as a touchstone for journalistic ethics.
“Here’s the difference between you and I,” Stewart laid it down for Wallace. “I’m a comedian first. My comedy is informed by an ideological background. […] but I’m not an ideologue.”
Wallace accused Stewart of using his comedy to further a progressive agenda, to which he responded that Wallace was “dead wrong” and “insane.”
Stewart’s Post-9/11 Monologue
When The Daily Show returned to the air for the first time after the September 11 attacks, Jon Stewart opened with a sober, heartrending speech about the resilience, beauty, and strength of our country.
Stewart vs. Jim Cramer
It was the culmination of a long on-air feud between Stewart and Jim Cramer, the histrionic host of CNBC’s Mad Money. For weeks, Stewart had taken Cramer to task for his irresponsible financial advice leading up to the 2008 global financial meltdown — slanted, overly optimistic guidance that Stewart characterized as “disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”
“We’re both snake oil salesman to a certain extent, but we do label the show as snake oil here,” Stewart told Cramer. “I understand you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a f***ing game.”
The interview, which more resembled a deposition than a friendly late-night tête-à-tête concluded with a repulsed Stewart saying: “Maybe we can remove ‘In Cramer We Trust’ and go back to the fundamentals and I can go back to making fart noises and funny faces.”
Stewart Does Glenn Beck
In a magnificent piece of extended performance art, Stewart opened a show with a masterful impersonation of Glenn Beck’s senseless monologues. In the same way that Beck made illogical leaps from liberal social programs to Nazism, Stewart unleashed a flurry of false equivalence to connect Beck’s brand of Christian moralism with Iranian theocracy. With spot-on mimicry of Beck’s childish, incoherent trains of thought, Stewart shattered the poor “strawman-slippery-slope dumb guy.”
Stewart vs. Bill O’Reilly
A match made in media heaven: Bill O’Reilly, the journalist who became the Fox News mascot, and Jon Stewart, the comedian who became a credible news source. The two ended up meeting somewhere in the middle, in a series of earnest, hilarious, and squirm-inducing sparring sessions on each other’s shows, as well as the 2012 debate parody, The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.
In the following clip, after a lengthy bout, Stewart finally got O’Reilly to concede that there was indeed such a thing as white privilege: “I’ll call it this and it’s a word I think you’ll understand: it’s a factor.”
Stewart Embraces A New Sponsor
When Stewart learned that the Koch brothers had purchased commercial time on his show, he welcomed them to The Daily Show fold about as nicely as anyone could have expected him to.
The Rally to Restore Sanity
What was the 2010 rally anyway? A bizarre comedy-concert and an inspired spoof of the alarming gatherings of the then-nascent Tea Party, the event drew over 200,000 people to the Washington Mall to express widespread exasperation at what Stewart called the “country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-panic-conflictinator.”
“I can’t control what people think this was,” Stewart said in his concluding remarks. “I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times.”
The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker and perhaps eczema. And yet with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good, because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun-house mirror […] We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.
The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.
[…] The truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together. If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) participates in a taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the Comedy Central Studios in New York, October 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed