Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Goodbye, Jon Stewart

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I first saw "The Daily Show."  My best guess is that it was probably the year 2000, right around when I had access to cable television for the first time in my college dorm.  That would have been the second year of Jon Stewart's tenure as host, when they were still doing a few of the "local news" segments left over from the Kilborn era.  However, the political coverage was also ramping up, and quickly attracting the attention of other youngsters like me.  My initial impression of "The Daily Show" was that it was a lot like SNL's "Weekend Update," except a full half hour.  The satire felt more well-considered, and the presenters more committed to the jokes.  It wasn't quite appointment viewing for me, but I found myself watching a lot of Jon Stewart and his merry band of correspondents, including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

So even before rise of Fox News, it was worth watching.  However, 9/11 and its aftermath were what really made "The Daily Show" what it became known for.  The news media landscape was changed forever for the worse, and "The Daily Show" emerged as an important counterweight to the babble of the 24-hour news cycle, and particularly to the paranoid right-wing sentiments that fueled the second Iraq War.  I kept watching "The Daily Show," not only because I found it funny and informative, but because it was one of the few media outlets at the time that was presenting a view of the world that made sense to me.  I made sure to keep myself very informed through other outlets - I was watching the BBC World News and reading the New York Times daily - but Jon Stewart's editorial voice was invaluable for making sense of post 9/11 America.  The fact that it was being presented through a half-hour satirical talk show on Comedy Central that used to air after junk like "Crank Yankers" didn't dissuade me.

And as the show changed, the host changed too.  Jon wasn't my favorite part of "The Daily Show" in the beginning - the Steph/vens were much more entertaining to watch.  However, Jon could cut through the hypocrisy like few others, which lead to moments like the "Crossfire" interview that took down Tucker Carlson.  I didn't see the first post-9/11 "Daily Show" with Jon's famous monologue until a few years after it aired, but it's required viewing.  You can see his stubborn optimism, his intellectual rigor, and his formidable ethical fiber coming to the fore.  You can see the man who would devote an entire show to pressing the cause of post-9/11 responders, the man who took months off from "The Daily Show" to make a movie about a wrongly incarcerated Iranian journalist, the man who has become the most trusted name in media as so many of the legitimate newsmen of our day were lost to scandal or corruption.  Jon Stewart used to downplay his work in interviews, pointing out that he was a comedian.  He's stopped doing that in recent years, as "The Daily Show" and its offspring have grown in influence and impact.

As much as I'd like Jon Stewart to stay, part of me knows that it's probably time for him to go.  I've watched "The Daily Show" regularly for about fifteen years now, and Stewart's go-to shtick has become a little too familiar.  That would be fine if he were on a network late night show, but "The Daily Show" is another matter entirely.  If it is to remain the satirical institution it has become, it needs new blood and some freshening up.  Stewart's already been surpassed in many ways by "Daily Show" alums Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.  I have high hopes for Trevor Noah, though he's going to have his work cut out for him, especially as an interviewer. Stewart's always given even his most contrarian rivals a fair shake, and I suspect many of them will be as sad to see him go as the rest of hie audience.  It's going to be strange not to see Stewart behind the desk, doodling over his note cards and doing his terrible-yet-endearing impression of George W. Bush.

David Letterman's retirement made me pause last year, but Jon Stewart's imminent departure is hitting me much harder, and not just because I still watch his show.  Stewart is almost certainly the major comedic influence of my late Gen-X, early Gen-Y generation.  I was there to see his rise and subsequently followed his career through thick and thin and an ill-considered Oscar hosting gig.  And now I'm here to see him go, after sixteen years.  We're not part of the same milieu, and I don't really identify with him in any way except politically and intellectually, but that's enough.  I'm firmly convinced that "The Daily Show" helped to keep the political discourse in this country from becoming worse than it already was in troubled times, and for getting many of us to pay attention to boring but vitally important issues.  Jon Stewart, in his own unlikely, fascinating way, made a difference, and I'll always be grateful for that.

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