And with that, Jon Stewart, a former Mexican restaurant busboy and once-fledgling comedian, announced that he would be stepping down sometime this year as host of The Daily Show. The Daily Show, a show that was once a blip on the cable radar, is now a television institution, with eighteen Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, three highly successful spinoffs. It launched the careers of dozens of incredibly gifted comedians and actors, and somehow, it became a (semi) legitimate news source to an entire generation. Stewart, the man who brought the show from the bowels of obscurity to the peak of prominence, is abdicating his throne in a time when, for better or worse, we may need him more than ever. (“Jon? NBC Nightly News on line one.”)
Most people may be surprised to know that Jon Stewart was never anyone’s first choice for, well, anything. He’d tell you himself that he bombed for years when he started as a standup comedian. Eventually, as he got better, he hosted a few shows for Comedy Central here and there, and he was even a finalist to replace David Letterman after Letterman’s highly publicized move from NBC to CBS. (The job eventually went to Conan O’Brien.) Stewart got his first big break with his own MTV show, The Jon Stewart Show, which ran for two seasons. The show did well on MTV, and parent company Paramount even syndicated it in major markets after it axed The Arsenio Hall Show, but it eventually got canceled due to low ratings in syndication. Stewart was rumored to take over The Late Late Show, which follows Letterman, but he was eventually passed over in favor of Craig Kilborn. Even after initial success with The Daily Show, he was tied to “bigger and better” things, such as taking over for Letterman in 2002 when he was rumored to be switching from CBS to ABC. He was even offered a new franchise to follow Nightline on ABC, which was eventually given to Jimmy Kimmel, but Stewart eventually found success on a relatively unknown half-hour, late-night show (ironically abdicated by Kilborn): The Daily Show.
The Daily Show under Craig Kilborn wasn’t what you might call a smash success. It was criticized as being “mean-spirited,” and conflicts over the show’s direction between the producers, network, and host didn’t give it much of a chance. Frankly, if you’re hosting a show, you probably shouldn’t give an interview saying that the show’s co-creator and head writer, Lizz Winstead, “Does find me very attractive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would.” Not good.
But when Stewart became the host in 1999, he somehow had the perfect mix of sarcasm, satire, and wit that set the show — and the world — on fire. Ratings increased by 400 percent in 1999. He poked fun at politicians of both parties and he especially got his kicks roasting pundits and talking heads on cable news networks, who had taken their “pulpits” as reporters and anchors and turned them into places to spew opinions and “inform” the public based on their beliefs. And yet, many people could accuse Stewart of the same thing, which he has denied dozens of times, simply saying that the show was for “schnicks and giggles” and that there was no political agenda. That being said, the show came to maturity in the George W. Bush era of politics, the post-9/11 world, so he had a wealth of material to work with just about night in and night out. I don’t think that the show would have gotten off the ground as quickly as it did without existing in that era. Hopefully Stewart sends President Bush a thank you note.
To be fair, the show has never been without valid criticism. Stewart and the show have been accused of encouraging American youth to “adopt a self-righteous attitude” toward American politics. In a Boston Globe article titled “Why Jon Stewart Isn’t Funny,” author Michael Kalin accuses Stewart of deterring college students away from careers in politics: “Stewart,” Kalin argues, “leads to a ‘holier than art [sic] thou’ attitude [among students]…content to remain perched atop their Olympian ivory towers, these bright leaders head straight for the private sector.”
Another common criticism of Stewart is that his show’s prominence and impact makes him less of a comedian and more of a political commentator. To the argument’s credit, it can be very easy to give an opinion of something and the minute criticism arises, hide behind the shield of “This is just comedy! This is satire!” Anyone who writes or performs comedy and gets some kind of backlash is guilty of this. I know I am (though you commenters will be the first to tell me I’ve never done anything remotely resembling comedy). “You’re on CNN!” Stewart said in an appearance on CNN’S Crossfire: “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?” Media critic Dan Kennedy says that Stewart came off as disingenuous in this exchange because “you can’t interview Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, Bill O’Reilly, Bob Dole, etc., etc., and still say you’re just a comedian.” The guy just can’t seem to win.
Yet Stewart never let any of this stop him from doing what he wanted to do. He kept the show true to his vision and he never let anyone stop him. The show kept climbing in the ratings, remained a darling with critics, and won a shitload of awards. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so the show kept going. Along the way, he just so happened to launch, or be a major contributing factor to, shitloads of careers and highly successful spinoffs. Ever heard of a guy named Ed Helms? The Hangover and Office star was a correspondent from 2002 to 2006, alongside brilliant comedian Rob Corddry. Steve Carell was there, too, along with some other guy with a similar name. What was his name? Oh yeah — Stephen Colbert, the guy who got his own companion show following The Daily Show (the character-driven Colbert Report, which ran for ten seasons, winning six Emmys and two Peabodys all its own) who will replace Letterman, the elder statesman of late-night television, as the second-ever host of The Late Show. That’s big shit.
How about some more brilliant names? The incredibly underrated Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Wyatt Cenac, Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams — there are more than I can count. Two other guys getting incredible success from The Daily Show, albeit in different ways, are John Oliver, the British import who got his start with Stewart, who’s the host of his own incredibly critically-acclaimed Last Week Tonight, and Larry Wilmore, a veteran TV writer and producer, an In Living Color alumnus, and the creator of The PJs and The Bernie Mac Show, who was turned into a personality by Stewart and is now a household name with the new Nightly Show. (The Nightly Show replaced The Colbert Report after its run ended in December.) In a mere seventeen years, Jon Stewart has launched enough careers to rival even the O.G. comedy launchpad, Lorne Michaels himself. Bold statement, but he’s had that kind of impact.
You could tell the writing was on the wall this past summer when Stewart went off to direct the movie Rosewater, which is about an Iranian reporter detained in Iran. He left the reins of The Daily Show temporarily to John Oliver. I mean, no person can have the same job for seventeen years — you get restless, even when your job is as cool as Stewart’s. He said himself that the show doesn’t deserve a restless host, and he hinted at his own restlessness when promoting Rosewater. Surely there’s some young upstart with a biting wit and keen enough mind to shine a light on our political system and have the balls to ask, “What the hell are you doing?” (For the record, his name is Seth Meyers, and he currently hosts Late Night from 12:35 to 1:35 a.m. on NBC.)
What Stewart says he’ll miss the most is not being on TV every day, but “coming here every day. This is where…I love the people here. They’re the best. They’re creative, collaborative, they’re kind…I love them and I respect them so much.” It’s probably incredibly hard for him to walk away from the family that he created. It’ll be harder for us to see him go.
Personally? All I can say is, for lack of a better phrase, thank you, Jon Stewart. He, along with Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel on The Man Show were my comedy heroes growing up. The kind of idol worship our parents had watching Carson or Letterman? That’s what I had for Jon Stewart. He’s smart. He’s funny. Shit, he’s Jewish. Considering I was a fat, geeky kid getting bullied from eight years old to, oh, about ten minutes from now in the comments, he’s the guy who reminded me, “Hey, it’s okay. Keep going. You can do it.” I don’t just admire Jon Stewart for the success of The Daily Show. As anyone will tell you, success in television and entertainment can come out of nowhere and be gone in an instant. No, I admire his tenacity. His refusal to give up in the face of bombing at comedy clubs and being the “second choice” for a ton of jobs has been a constant source of inspiration for me. He kept me informed, (albeit with a comedic edge), gave me the inspiration to pursue my career path, and always, always, always gave me a reason to keep going. And he still does, to this day.
Whatever he chooses to do post-Daily Show, I hope he finds his Moment of Zen..