Jon Stewart opened his final episode of The Daily Show with “full-team coverage” of Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, featuring current and returning Daily Show correspondents from throughout Stewart’s tenure, including Stephen Colbert.
Before spontaneous and heartfelt remarks in which he thanked Stewart for showing him “how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity,” Colbert reminded Stewart that for 16 years he had “the power to be a player in the world of media and Washington politics,” even if it was a power Stewart said he didn’t want.
Of course, last night’s show was recorded hours before the Republican debate actually started. There was and will be no witty recap of Thursday night’s debate from America’s leading political satirist.
After 16 years of speaking truth to power, the jester has hung up his cap and bells.
A long, successful run
In 2003, the year the Daily Show won its first Emmy award, its average viewership was almost triple what it had been when Stewart took over the show, nearing one million.
By 2011 Stewart’s average viewership of 2.3 million was more than Fox News at prime time. And in 2012, Stewart’s show was the highest-rated late night program for viewers in the 18-49 demographic.
Though Stewart’s ratings declined from the high-water marks during the last presidential campaign, to an average of 1.35 million this season, that figure may be a bit deceptive as it does not account for the growing trend of people viewing the show online.
A mirror held up to broadcast news
As a lead-in to Stewart’s final week, fans were treated Sunday to “News Your Adventure,” a Daily Show highlights program featuring viewers' top choices of clips including “[stories] Jon explained better than the news.”
Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist, and his show’s content was considerably more humor than substance, though a study I did with two graduate students at Indiana University found its political coverage was just as substantive as that of the broadcast television networks in reporting on campaign issues and candidate qualifications.
At a time of shrinking public trust in the news media, his self-proclaimed “Best ---- News Team Ever” repeatedly, and hilariously, reminded us of the failures of contemporary broadcast journalism.
Stewart’s own critiques of the news media from the anchor desk ranged from complimenting 2012 vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz for speaking “the lost language of journalism” to a “camera three” rant about the news media’s exaggerated coverage of a secret service drunk-driving incident last spring, in which Stewart asked journalists, “What, are you ---- drunk? I wish you were drunk; it would explain all of this - all your hyperbole and everything else.”
While the show’s format itself was a send-up of television news, its main focus under Stewart was politics and his satiric wrath was pointed mostly at politicians and political institutions.
Skewering on both sides of the partisan divide
On Monday, for example, Stewart led with a story about the Koch brothers hosting five Republican presidential candidates at a conference in California last weekend.
Stewart cracked wise about secret presidential forums, political machines, and the skewed influence of a “billionaire patronage selection process,” which he decried as “an accepted feature of our electoral system.”
That night’s show also exemplified Stewart’s equal opportunity skewering of Republicans and Democrats.
In response to recent Fox News commentary suggesting Stewart had become a shill for the White House, Stewart played a clip from his interview with former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in which he challenged her to sign up for Obamacare online before he downloaded every movie ever made.
He followed with his trademark technique for exposing hypocrisy, playing a montage of previous clips, this time from Fox News itself in which commentators noted Stewart’s criticism of President Obama on domestic and international issues.
As Stewart acknowledged on his penultimate show, Fox News was “the best known target in our show’s proverbial cross hairs,” so it came as no surprise during his final week that he would lob one more satiric grenade its way - literally pantomiming the motion of tossing a grenade while video of a huge fire blazed behind him on the set.
A daily dose of folly
As the penultimate show began, Stewart proudly reviewed issues, people, and institutions his show “Eviscerated … demolished, crushed” and “annihilated” over the past 16 years with “a devastating bombardment of laser-guided satire” before noting, to his exaggerated frustration, that each target (eg ISIS, racism, Wall Street, and Fox News) had actually grown stronger, wondering aloud, “What the ---- is going on here?”
Aiming his satire at himself, Stewart mused, “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started. Have I caused this? Have my efforts all been for naught?”
Stewart did not rid us of racism, reform Wall Street, or restore news media credibility.
But in the tradition of the wise fool he did expose deeper truth beneath the surface of his jokes and provided us a bit of folly at the end of the night and thus the sanity to face the madness of our political and social worlds the next day.
As President Obama told Stewart at the end of his final appearance on the show,
You’ve been a great gift to the country.