On August 6, legendary The Daily Show host Jon Stewart will step down from the show that made him an American icon.
This shouldn’t be a big event. People retire all the time, leaving behind holes that may never be properly filled. It’s happened on TV shows, it’s happened in bands, it’s happened at your job.
But Stewart wasn’t just that receptionist that got transferred to a new department. Since 1999, Stewart had been the yard stick by which our greatest cultural and historical moments were measured. His voice came through our TV screens, condemning politicians and celebrities for their deaf ear to the world. This seems like nothing revolutionary now – every talk show includes segments about political figures who are so hopelessly out of touch that they may as well be living on a different planet.
But Stewart was the first person to really give a sense of desperation to that humor. He was not just content to point and laugh at the politicians who insisted that God hates gay people. He was pointing to us as a society to allow such a person to be placed in the seat of power. Stewart, along with the rest of us, watched as the nation went mad and became increasingly obsessed with trivial matters and was one of the few who could make you feel just as worried as he always was.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Stewart. I think it was around the time Ohio congressman James Traficant was expelled from the House of Representatives. (Thanks to Comedy Central’s extensive archives, you can see a clip here) Most people probably don’t remember who Traficant was or why that expulsion mattered.
I didn’t really know the full extent of Traficant’s corruption either. But Stewart managed to make me care in three minutes. It was so simple and depended on such basic sound bites. (Of course, a Congressman from Youngstown, Ohio will offer you a lot of bizarre sound bites.) But it was also such an indictment of a man who should not have been wandering the halls of Congress. He did it without words. Look at Stewart’s gestures as he becomes increasingly befuddled by Traficant. Listen to his tone in that clip. Watch Stewart’s gestures as he tries to find something to compliment the disgraced Congressman.
That was the core of what made The Daily Show work. There was spoken comedy there, but it was almost overshadowed by what Stewart wasn’t saying. He was crying out for help in the middle of a storm. And, despite what his critics at Fox News say, it was a storm that reached both sides. Stewart was equally willing to criticize Democrats when he felt they were in the wrong.
He could also be a sober voice of reason who knew when not to make jokes. The best example is this speech that needs no introduction.
Many people are surprised that Stewart was sometimes informally voted the most trusted news person in America. I’m really not. I grew up in an age where news seemingly didn’t matter as much as punditry. It didn’t matter if people spouted facts. It mattered if they sounded good doing it. Take a look at Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rachel Maddow. They are people who have built multimillion dollar empires without ever being honest with their audience. Stewart was both honest and had material to back up what he was saying. He wasn’t some huge talking head. He was like a funny dinner guest who had bothered to read the news before spouting off about the day’s events. I always had the feeling he was honest His protegé Stephen Colbert came close, but was always stuck behind a mask. Colbert the character overshadowed Colbert the man. Stewart was always himself, never bothering to hide behind a character to make his point.
Stewart was an important man for people my age. He was our nightly voice of reason, whose bug-eyed, silent gestures spoke volumes in ways that other talking heads could not equal. Stewart was our voice of reason, the man who would always be there to try to make sense of our world. I sound like I’m eulogizing the man. That’s not fair. Stewart will hopefully return with a new movie he’s directed or a cameo that he will make on some sitcom or on some other talk show. Maybe he will return to stand up and continue to entertain smaller audiences with his unique insight. I’m sure he will have no trouble finding something he wants to do. But it won’t be quite the same for the millions of people who used Stewart as the barometer for their own sanity. In an age where cultural experience has been hopelessly divided, Stewart was one of the few uniting forces left. I’m not sure if there will ever be anyone who can replace him as a cultural icon. Maybe that’s as it should be. There was only one Johnny Carson and, for the people who laughed at his antics while depending on him to say what they could never articulate, there will only ever be one Jon Stewart.