As a kid I sometimes stayed up late to watch the first 15 minutes of Johnny Carson even though I was too young to get the jokes. When Carson left The Tonight Show, I remember adults expressing fondness for him, but Carson as a cultural phenomenon was something I was too young to feel attached to. David Letterman, whose last show is in May, I’m more on board with, but even still, there’s a sense of a generational divide, like I missed that train by a decade.
That’s not the case with Jon Stewart. We go way back. I was at least aware of Stewart as a TV personality in the early 90s thanks to the short-lived MTV show You Wrote It, You Watch It (the phrase “fish butt” still makes me giggle) and the more successful Jon Stewart Show. As for The Daily Show, I’ve watched it pretty regularly it since the Craig Kilborn days (which introduced me to the cult masterpiece Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky), but it was Stewart who gave the program a political edge and a moral imperative. That sense of purpose transformed The Daily Show into its own vital late-night entity, one that’s as been as important and influential as Late Night with David Letterman and the revamped Saturday Night Live of the late 80s.
With Letterman and Stewart leaving their shows this year, the whole face of late-night programming will change for Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. But we knew Letterman’s exit was coming for a while. Stewart’s unexpected announcement yesterday made me especially wistful when it came to my formative late-night memories.
Stewart isn’t retiring from the public eye as far as anyone knows, but the collective shock was enough to render Brian Williams’ half-year suspension from NBC an also-ran headline. It’s a testament to how much The Daily Show has become a comedy institution that’s also more trusted than news itself. Comparisons to Letterman and SNL are warranted. The Daily Show is its own irreverent beast, and it’s catapulted multiple careers while changing what late night could be for the the 21st century.
Yet The Daily Show is synonymous with Stewart, which is common when a host puts a stamp on a show. Even as correspondents left to start their own careers—Stephen Colbert, fittingly, to carry the torch from Letterman; John Oliver, also fittingly, to carry The Daily Show‘s torch in the form of Last Week Tonight—Stewart remained the program’s lovably impish center. Viewers could count on him to be honest whether expressing heartbreak, moral outrage, mocking incredulity, or even just confused resignation. Seeing his face so often in the same late-night slot consistently calling out lies and misinformation is what led to Stewart, as much as he hated it, becoming the most trusted name in news. (Walter Cronkite by way of Ernie Kovacs.)
There was speculation that NBC had courted Stewart to host Meet the Press. Nevermind that Stewart’s style is too combative for Meet the Press, a program that, like other Sunday morning political shows, functions as a safe zone for politicians to deliver talking points without actually being held accountable—this was true even when Tim Russert was moderator, let’s not kid ourselves.
And yet Stewart moderating a political show sort of made sense. Following Russert’s death in 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman called Russert the “Explainer in Chief of our political life.” For many Gen Xers and Millennials, Jon Stewart was their Explainer in Chief.
The television I loved and that proved so influential to me had that “Explainer In Chief” quality. My understanding of adult life has been molded by or linked to late-night comedy. (This is something I’ll probably need to explain to a therapist someday.)
One of the first non-kid books I remember buying was a collection of Letterman top 10 lists. Re-runs of early Letterman were on the E! channel, and SNL‘s 80s Renaissance was ongoing and also being re-run on Comedy Central (for a while, the original cast in truncated form could also be seen on Nick at Night). Throughout high school, I’d stay up to watch Conan O’Brien. On the verge of being canceled for months, Conan’s show in those wild and woolly days featured dancing/farting hot dogs, a 1950s robot dressed as a 1970s pimp, and staring contests chock full of dadaist sight gags. The Daily Show became political when I turned 18, and while I was at least semi-aware of political conversations via Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, the kinds of concerns and forms of critique and discourse on The Daily Show would prove more influential to my political views as an adult.
In some ways, I grew up on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but I came of age with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Growing up and getting older with someone on TV is such a strange thing. Even though Stewart’s still hosting and the show will continue without him, I caught myself thinking of The Daily Show in the past tense a few times while writing this piece, like an era had already ended simply because I knew it was going to end.
There’s going to be a long goodbye to Stewart in the coming months and loads more writing about The Daily Show‘s place in the late-night canon, not to mention its influence on a new generation of comedians, satirists, media critics, and journalists. There’s the odd excitement (tinged with fear) of change and how the new host of The Daily Show will put his or her stamp on the program. The guest list should get more interesting, and I sense Stewart’s impending departure may even prompt Senator John McCain to return to The Daily Show for the first time since 2008.
And there are all those questions about why Stewart’s going and what’s next. Maybe more filmmaking, maybe a political run (like late-night comedy alumnus Al Franken?), maybe a new show with a different format. Maybe, as he alluded to on last night’s show, Jon Stewart just wants to watch his own children grow up and become adults.
I miss him already.