THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART Finale Review: Unpacking a Legacy

     August 7, 2015


So there we have it, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is no more. Last night, Jon Stewart hosted his final episode of the program that he built from a simple late night comedy talk show into a fully fledged institution that kept the “bullshit” from the 24-hour news networks in check. Stewart’s legacy is vast, from jump-starting the careers of a slew of successful comedians like Steve Carell, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert, to highlighting some of the most important issues in our country with wit, humor, and dogged intelligence. Following last night’s emotional series finale, Chris Cabin and I attempt to sum up our thoughts on the final episode, Stewart’s impact, and more.

ADAM: So it’s really over. Jon Stewart’s been a staple of my late night routine for so long now, I feel like it’s gonna take a while for it to digest. But man, what a freaking finale. Given the longer runtime, I was worried they were going to go too heavy on bits, but the beats of that episode were pitch perfect. I genuinely cannot think of a better way to bring back all those correspondents. It breezed by, but you felt everyone kind of got his or her moment to shine. Overall, I was kinda blown away by the craft of the entire episode. What did you think?


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CHRIS: Not to sound too much like a war widow, but I think I’m going to miss his voice the most at night, and this is coming from a die-hard David Letterman fan that really hasn’t thought too much about his absence all that much in the last few months. I agree: it’s going to be awhile before I really feel the loss in its entirety, maybe not until Trevor Noah finally does take to his own desk for the new show. The thrust of the final episode, to me, was a reminder of the sheer breadth of talent that was fostered and developed under The Daily Show banner, and for a great deal of the time, Stewart ceded the floor to his current and former colleagues as a reminder of the variety of voices that made this show work under Stewart’s leadership. (For the record, Rob Riggle and John Oliver got the biggest laughs from me.) Unlike Letterman’s send-off, which Letterman controlled from beginning to end, this felt looser, more organically messy, and for all the right reasons. I don’t think the episode really got its head out of the clouds until Colbert arrived for that “Thank You” moment, which had me grinning like an idiot for 5 minutes straight.  

ADAM: Stewart’s legacy is vast, but you’re absolutely right, that first act was a reminder that he’s fostered some incredible talent under his wing over the last decade and a half. That bench was deep. I was also enthused to see that he was able to bring pretty much everyone back–did he miss a single major correspondent? And the Wyatt Cenac bit, while a tad awkward, felt genuine. I think that also speaks to his character, that there wasn’t a bunch of bad blood around that prevented certain people from returning. And yes, Riggle and Oliver win for laughs, while Colbert brought it all home with that really emotional ending. I think organic is the right word for the episode. Everything felt 100% genuine, and that kind of embodies the whole show for me. It was never about getting laughs for laughs’ sake or chasing ratings, they did what they did because it’s what they wanted to do and it’s what no one else was doing, and it just so happens they were some of the smartest people working in television. When you think of The Daily Show‘s legacy under Jon Stewart, what springs to mind for you?


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CHRIS: Stewart’s main complaint about a lot of news outlets was a lack of context and some not-so-great fact-checking, which The Daily Show has always had in spades. What Stewart and his various colleagues brought to the foreground was an ability to look at the production of news and politics, to see the theatricality of it all and be able to cut down the hyperbolic, nonsensical, and just plain false elements of how political campaigns and the news are presented. He actually made me think a lot about criticism as an art form, because he also could completely break down unconvincing political performance, from using lazy, egregious rhetoric (the rise of Republicans use of Nazis as a reference point) to bad props (Netanyahu’s bomb poster) to just total incompetence (Jim Inhofe) and clear duplicity (Chris Christie). And in a strange way, the final show reflected that: there was no attempt to fit such a tremendous occasion into the accepted format of the show, for the sake of the production. It was just irrepressible joy and nostalgia for all involved. The show also proved a bracing reminder that empathy and comedy are often the best bedfellows. I remember Stewart’s coverage of Rob Ford’s crack-smoking scandal and thinking that, though he made fun of him with glee, the main message of those segments was that Ford needed serious help for what was clearly a very serious substance abuse problem. Do you have any specific cultural or political events that you thought that The Daily Show was specifically on-point about? I know there’s a lot to choose from.


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ADAM: Man, where do you start? One big one that sticks out in my mind was the 9/11 First Responders Health Care bill, which was one of the few times that Stewart allowed himself to cross the line into advocacy. He was always adamant that The Daily Show was a comedy program, not a news program, but I think the show was always blurring those lines. I was blown away when he just simply brought out a some 9/11 First Responders and, for an entire episode, just talked to them about their health struggles and the fact that congress was blocking a bill that would literally have saved their lives. While the tone of most Daily Show pieces was comedic, there were times when Stewart’s anger couldn’t be contained any longer, and he’d simply let loose in a pointed, insanely smart, level-yet-passionate way. Those moments were always impactful for me, because I felt he was expressing real emotions over an issue that many of us in the country were similarly upset about. Major news outlets maintained a professional composure in their coverage of such events (and many times that was warranted), but Stewart made us feel like we weren’t alone in our despair without just devolving into a puddle of vitriol-spewing anger. His coverage of the string of shootings over the past few years also comes to mind. No one could quite sum up our thoughts and feelings as intelligently, passionately, and concisely as Stewart could, and I think that–along with keeping all the “bullshit” from the major news media in check–is what I’m going to miss the most. How do you feel about Stewart’s position that he was simply telling jokes and nothing more?


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CHRIS: I think anger is the key word with Stewart. It’s not easy to critique and comment on the plague of cynicism without becoming overtly cynical yourself, and as skeptical as Stewart always was, I rarely felt him dip into out-and-out cynicism. But he was angry, and for all the right reasons: watching his reaction to the Eric Garner decision made me feel so much better about my own anger over such surreally horrifying and unjust events. His stance was that he was telling jokes but he never included a basic truth about comedy, and that is that, at its best, it flows from truth. This is coming from a person who found his first taste for liberal politics by listening to George Carlin‘s “What Am I Doing in New Jersey?” and “You Are All Diseased!” on repeat, not by watching Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, as great newsmen as they are. And mind you, one of the best utilities in Stewart’s arsenal was his deadpan reaction to news clips, his quiet facial reactions to things too utterly ridiculous to even respond to without reminding one’s self just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone. I can buy that he wasn’t a journalist – journalists go out, tap sources, build their own stories, etc. What I think makes him so deeply influential and groundbreaking was that he melded the news anchor with the comedian, and relied completely on his audience’s ability to read and react to tone to make the discernments between a flight of the absurd and fact. So, in this, I allow for him to believe that he was just telling jokes, even if it was much, much more than that for me and a few million others. What’s your take? 

ADAM: I totally agree, he wasn’t a journalist, but he was a combination of newsman and comedian who found the perfect balance between the two. It never came off as cynicism, and it never came off as “high-and-mighty”. This was just an incredibly smart guy weighing in on huge issues with humor, passion, and a dash of anger. Up until his return from filming Rosewater, it never felt like he was going through the motions. But it was clear before he officially announced his retirement that he wasn’t 100% “in it” anymore, which he himself admitted–something felt a little off. Once he announced he was leaving, though, it was a sprint to the finish with all the gusto and passion we’ve come to expect. 


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But as we start to wind down here, I definitely want to know what you think about Trevor Noah. Speaking of the blending of newsman and comedian, I think John Oliver carved out a fantastic niche for himself on Last Week Tonight that’s in the same genre as what Stewart did, but he’s actually taken it one step closer to journalism as he and his team actually do dig deep into stories and present facts to the audience. Noah’s Daily Show obviously won’t look like Stewart’s, but what are your thoughts on late night TV’s first “millennial” host? Was there someone else you were pulling for as Comedy Central was looking for Stewart’s replacement?

CHRIS: It’s funny you mention when he came back from Rosewater (underrated!). The most telling sign that he was getting tired of the entire thing was his reaction to the audience being entertained by the simple pun-filled names that the stories were given – you could tell that he was increasingly unimpressed and defeated about the details of the show, if never outright lazy or unenthused by the work itself. But then Trump happened and everything changed, and from the “White House Don” segment on, its been nothing but hits up to and including last night’s farewell.

I’m cautiously optimistic, as I imagine most Daily Show fans are, about Trevor Noah. He’s clearly a talented comedian and I think he has a pretty solid idea for reformatting the program to look more at internet journalism and gossip. My only real quibble is the fact that they kept the name The Daily Show. At this point, Jon Stewart is the program: my mother and uncle don’t call it The Daily Show, they say “did you watch Jon Stewart last night?” I understand the idea of keeping a brand, but it puts Noah at a disadvantage of having to be compared to Stewart no matter what he does. But as a host, I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table. Of course, my first choice, without a doubt, would have been Jessica Williams, who may go down as my favorite correspondent since Oliver in all honesty. I know that everyone from Amy Schumer to Louis C.K. to Amy Poehler were asked about taking over, but no one at that level wants to go near Stewart’s chair and Comedy Central should have known that. Noah, Williams, and Jordan Keppler, who has been great recently, are all young enough and have worked there, so those were always the people I had in mind. Regardless, I’m excited to see what Noah is cooking up, and will likely spend most night rewatching old Stewart clips until that day arrives. Where are you on Noah, and did you have anyone else in mind when the shake-up happened? 


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ADAM: The title of The Daily Show does put Noah at a bit of a disadvantage insofar as he has to live up to the idea of the show audiences already have ingrained in their minds, but I kind of like the idea of keeping it as an institution much like Late Show or The Tonight Show. Stewart’s irreplaceable, but it would be swell if Noah’s able to carve out his own niche while sticking to the foundation of what Stewart created. And clearly letting everyone behind the scenes keep their jobs was of key importance to Stewart’s exit deal, so I’m really curious to see not only how Noah does as host, but how the executive producers plan to evolve and shift out of their comfort zone as well.

Like you, I’m also cautiously optimistic about Noah. I’ve seen quite a few interviews with him now and he seems to be insanely smart, so I’m sure he knows to simply mimic what Stewart was doing would be a disaster. The question is, what kind of show is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah? I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but my first thought after Stewart announced his retirement was Jessica Williams. Not only is she hilarious, but she has the same passionate spirit and glimmer of anger that made Stewart so interesting, so I was really pulling for her to land the gig. I’d certainly agree she’s the best correspondent since Oliver, and I’m curious to see in what capacity she stays on in Noah’s iteration of the show. But yeah, on the whole I’m mostly optimistic about Noah, but it’s tough not to be a little scared–in the span of a year the entire late night TV landscape has shifted, with Stewart and Letterman leaving the biggest holes. Seth Meyers gives me hope for this new generation–he’s not overly focused on doing bits intended to go viral with his guests like Fallon is, and he’s the best interviewer we’ve got now that Stewart’s gone–and I have a feeling Noah could be of the same ilk if he can find a smart way to blend millennial sensibilities with the smarts of what we’ve come to expect from The Daily Show.


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Any parting thoughts as we say goodbye to Jon Stewart once and for all? I’m selfishly hoping he pops up with a new program somewhere in the next five years, but I understand wanting to spend more time with his family. I know this gets said about a lot of people all the time, but in no hyperbolic terms, TV will not be the same without Jon Stewart.

CHRIS: If John Oliver continues or even expands what he’s doing on Last Week Tonight for the foreseeable future, I’ll be all set with my weekly news-comedy, but it is hard to conceive of both Stewart and Letterman not being here, especially considering how they were clearly of a specific breed. What was so endearing about both was their barely veiled embarrassment over what they were doing. The absurdity of fame and the outrageous amount of money that goes along with it was writ large all over their faces, even when they were talking about the most serious of subjects. I have high hopes for Colbert’s impending late-night reign, as well as Noah, Meyers, and Larry Wilmore, who has been steadily sharpening The Nightly Show over the last few months; I’m not fond of the panel set-up that he uses, like Bill Maher, but Wilmore is a born anchor/host. 

What I’ll miss most is that Stewart did feel like someone you knew, like your best friend’s cool-yet-nerdy older brother who showed you John Carpenter‘s The Thing for the first time and told you all about Howard Zinn before you were old enough to know what the patriarchy even was. For a person who has never been much for making sure to be home for any television program, he was the person I had to make sure to catch up with because I knew I was going to laugh and that I was going to be informed, no matter the chosen subject matter. That consistency, which not even Letterman pulled off all the time, is what I’ll miss, that sense of unerring accountability and responsibility that has seemingly become untenable for every single other news-centric show on modern television.  

ADAM: Yep, that hits the nail on the head.


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