For me, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have never had a finer nine minutes than the opening of the first show after the events of 9/11. Not only for Stewart’s incredibly heartfelt and poignant reflections on what that day and its aftermath meant for us a country — a meaning we promptly managed to waste away with just the kind of fear and divisiveness the terrorists wanted — but for probably the perfect summation of what The Daily Show was all about:
The show, in general, we feel like is a privilege. Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wise cracks. . . which is really what we do. We sit in the back and throw spitballs — but never forgetting that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that.
For sixteen years, Stewart and company were our class clowns: brazen, disruptive, fearless, but with much more in mind than just drawing attention to themselves and making us laugh. Stewart met hypocrisy with indignation, injustice with outrage. He went after all sides of the political spectrum when a particular side had it coming; it just seemed like he always went after conservatives because they offered him far more ammunition over the years. He was brutal, honest, articulate, profane, dignified, a consummate professional whose fake news often put real news to shame.
I didn’t keep up with the show in recent years as much as I used to, but I didn’t really have to. You could always count on Stewart’s most biting and noteworthy pieces showing up in various social media. In that sense, he became a sort of viral Edward R. Murrow, a trusted voice for the digital age, someone whose take was always looked for, captured, and disseminated through Facebook posts and Twitter feeds all over the world. You could have never had cable service in the last sixteen years and still have seen some of Stewart’s greatest hits. That’s the kind of reach any celebrity would kill to have, let alone a news network. That it was arguably in service of a greater good is just icing on the cake.
I remember watching Comedy Central’s election night coverage in 2008, when Stewart got — and then delivered — the news that Obama had been elected. You could see such pride on his face. You could hear such hope in his voice. By all rights, it should have been a victory lap for everything he’d been standing for since he started the show. The good guys had won. But the euphoria was short-lived. You almost got the feeling Stewart kept the show going solely to make sure we remembered the victory won that night, that we didn’t forget the pride and hope. And it’s somewhat fitting he bows out as Obama’s presidency nears its end. Stewart shepherded us through the depths of the Bush years and the heights of the Obama ones, the nadir to the pinnacle. And helped us put both in perspective.
So tonight it all ends, at least for Stewart. The Daily Show will go on, in a different form, just as it did when Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn. It might very well be close to the show we know now, but it can’t help but be inescapable different without Stewart’s signature voice and style. We can only hope that whatever path Stewart follows next, we don’t lose that voice. We’ve never been more in need of spitballs than we are right now.