Last week the host of one my favorite shows, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, announced his impending retirement from the show. The news was a shock to fans and even to the show’s staff who were not informed of the news before the episode’s taping. As the news broke last Tuesday afternoon, the internet went crazy (myself included), disheartened fans pleading with the show and its host to reconsider:
@DailyShowJon PLEASE DON'T LEAVE US. We love the show but you are its heart. I speak for everyone everywhere as I beg you to reconsider.
— Prof (@DrProfEsq) February 11, 2015
So how has The Daily Show with Jon Stewart grown into television’s most popular and successful fake news show… other than there being no others? They’ve grown and changed with the times as evidenced by their online expansion, but have always kept to a basic premise, with recurring jokes and techniques. Mobile news anchors on blatantly fake in-studio backdrops, for example, have been a part of the show for more than a decade and persist as one of the underspoken running jokes on the show. And in recent years TDS has expanded into an empire, spawning three other shows helmed by ex-TDS correspondents as well as success for a number of other ex-staffers, but we’ll come back to that in just a moment. As far as the show’s success, the “with Jon Stewart” part has proven to be pretty important. I remember the show before he took the helm, when it was a cheeky, kinda douchey late night show hosted by Craig Kilborn. I was a fan, one of my earliest in a format that I very much enjoy, but the difference between that show in 1998 and the one that Stewart will leave in 2015 or ’16 is night and day.
Stewart has fit into his one-of-a-kind role like a suit tailored over time; he didn’t necessarily start as comedy’s most trusted news man. It’s in the show’s last decade that its popularity has soared and its opponents actually put on notice by TDS’s reports. Some such detractors like to claim that Stewart is a news anchor hiding behind comedy but the show’s success owes a large amount to the tenet of always being funny first. TDS is a comedy show, on a comedy network, that uses the news as its fodder. With time, that comedy has grown more sophisticated and satirical while simultaneously increasing its brashness, dramatically upping the level of swearing and dick jokes as the FCC regulations for cable tv have loosened. This comedy vs. news distinction is important because instead of trying to “make the headlines funny”, a staple of hosts like Leno, Letterman, Kimmel and Fallon, TDS’s art is social and political critique, aiming to point out our inherent fallacies with a lens of truth that only humor can provide. Though there is no shying away from its liberal perspective, with a particularly insightful ire for the cesspool that is Fox News, the show points that lens in all directions and except in the rarest of cases, TDS doesn’t abandon their “funny first” policy, even when the subject matter might seem too serious for parody. A notable exception is the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case, to which Jon had an angry, baffled, and serious response, one that reflected many of our own thoughts and feelings. The program is content-driven (as opposed to host-driven) but it is Stewart’s passion that makes it so hard to envision another person in his chair. While The Daily Show has developed an excellent recipe, I think they’re going to find that Jon Stewart is the special sauce. Comedically he employs a mix of great writing, clever graphics, subtle facial expressions and over-the-top buffoonery (including the frequent f-bomb) but it is truly his insight that drives his devoted fanbase. His style as the self-deprecating everyman, intelligent and informed but also grounded (a rare combination) will be a difficult trait to find in another anchor. How difficult? Impossible, given the uniqueness of the role? We fans will just have to wait and see.
Stewart’s detractors often miss the point in their criticisms, making The Daily Show’s success a tough nut to crack for conservatives. In debating the “lower standards” to which Stewart and the show are held given their role as a comedy and not a news program, these detractors let their envy show, displaying their own level of ignorance to the difference between entertainment and news. Their goals are not (read: should not be) the same, their tactics and their ethics are not the same. But in the era of 24-hour cable news our society has allowed too much of the news sphere to bleed into entertainment. CNN, against whom TDS rails regularly, has morphed from once truly being “the most trusted name in news” into a glossy, over-graphicked, teethless and sensationalist stack of segments, peddling one news story per day. While some liberal bias exists, the case tends to be overstated for CNN as the real liberal news network is MSNBC, sitting as far left as the third, dreaded, evil network is to the right. Though intelligent, poignant, satirical and rooted in reality, both Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are agents of comedy. I’m sure it brings joy to the heart of every staff member when the show is reviewed or critiqued by “fellow” networks, treating the reports with the same weight as those filed by actual news institutions. Perhaps this is less an indication of the fine line traversed by TDS and more a statement on modern news programs. If, for example, the O’Reilly Factor added a couple funny writers and moved on over to Comedy Central the show would suddenly make a lot more sense.
In the fall of 2005, The Daily Show’s first spin-off hit the air. The Colbert Report, starring TDS’s most famous ex-correspondent, took the news satire concept to new, unseen places, shrouding the host as a staunch conservative, garnering its own rabid fanbase, and in turn igniting a boost in popularity to the original show. During its nine year run The Report earned 9 Emmy’s and even 2 Peabodys (a journalism and broadcasting award), before Colbert made his move to take over for Letterman this September. British former TDS correspondent John Oliver has now been the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO for nearly a year and in January former “senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore moved to Colbert’s old timeslot with The Nightly Show, a second spin-off. And let’s not forget that stars of The Office Steve Carrell and Ed Helms both got their big breaks as correspondents on The Daily Show. The show’s writers authored the wildly popular 2004 book America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, the follow-up Earth: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race, and even Colbert’s 2007 I Am America (And So Can You!). TDS has grown into an empire, aided by a strong social media presence and use of the web for purposes like expanding the guest interview beyond the television’s half hour. It has won 18 Emmys, 2 Peabodys (for their Indecision coverage of the 2000 and 2004 elections), and by 2003 had an average viewership of a million per night, which would be doubled by 2008.
So why now, at the seeming height of both the show’s popularity and political importance, would Stewart decide to step off the stage?
One answer is that perhaps the popularity is exactly why he’s choosing to leave, making the difficult decision that far too few performers make, to leave your creative enterprise when your fans are still clamoring for more, a la Jerry Seinfeld or Dave Chappelle. Another possible reason for his departure is a desire to be with his family, another decision made by far too few in this profession. Stewart, whose two children are currently 9 and 10 years old, had this to say as part of his departure announcement:
“…I’m going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard, from multiple sources, are lovely people.”
One other possible reason for leaving behind his anchor mantel is a desire to work on other projects, “the restless host” as he called it. In the summer of 2013 he left to produce and direct Rosewater, a film about journalist Maziar Bahari being detained in Iran. He is executive producer on The Nightly Show and served the same role for The Colbert Report. Given his energy and knowledge of the importance of an informed political debate, it’s difficult to imagine Stewart simply riding off into the sunset (like Seinfeld or Chappelle) but what comes next is anyone’s guess, probably upto and including Stewart himself. He seemed genuinely unsure as to the particular timeline for his departure and the show will truly have to undergo some soul-searching before its next direction is clear.
What is clear is that in its 16-year run with Jon Stewart as its host and captain, The Daily Show has carved out an identity that rises uniquely and proudly above television’s landscape. Stewart has risen as an unofficial steward of political discussion, contrasting and attacking the culture of sensationalism and fear-mongering to which our news networks, left, right and other, have acquiesced in the last 10 years. The show’s popularity has increased rapidly but fans who have been there from the beginning are able to see just how true the show has remained to its core principles. For one of comedy’s hardest-working men the time has finally come to enjoy his success and while the viewer in me is devastated by the impending departure of one my personal heroes, the fan in me is thankful for what he has created.
However, until the moment he is no longer seated by the The Daily Show desk I will continue my empassioned pleas: PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US, JON! (And thanks again).