On last night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart led with a segment highlighting the way conservative pundits have praised the assertive military swagger of Jordan’s King Abdullah while slamming Obama’s military hesitancy in the face of ISIS. He rolled a montage of the same pundits in the past calling Obama pro-Muslim and characterizing him as a “tyrannical king.” Stewart’s juxtaposition was clever and damning. But on the subversive scale, it barely registered. After all, this is the same exact argument that has been the bones of the invaluable Daily Show for almost two decades. So it’s not that America no longer needs tough, smart, sarcastic voices speaking truth to power. But as Stewart bids farewell to the franchise he shaped into a cultural powerhouse, it’s finally time to retire The Daily Show for good.
To begin with: His comic offspring have surpassed him. Stewart acknowledged hypocrisy, Stephen Colbert embodied it, John Oliver investigates it, and Larry Wilmore now brings much-needed perspective to it. Jessica Williams’ Daily Show segments on subjects like cat-calling and sex on college campuses were so good in part because they felt truly unprecedented in the late-night comedy world, a sharp, straight-talking perspective we had never seen. Even the Onion’s fake news network, started in 2007, can feel Stewart-esque in its eyebrow-cocked commentary on the inanities of 24-hour news coverage. Stewart’s satirical legacy is that he spawned a legion of shows that will surely go further and deeper than even The Daily Show ever did.
And online media, needless to say, have learned to ape a lot of Stewart’s moves. All over the Web, sites round up cable news hypocrisies and play their gaffes on an endless loop. In some ways the idea of a nightly satire show now feels uncomfortably wedged between the breakneck pace of social media and the relative leisureliness of the weekly format that Oliver has mastered. Media criticism in general has reached such a saturation point that our most innovative satire right now is coming from Clickhole.com—the central joke of which is that it has no real substance at all.
So we don’t need to plug someone else into The Daily Show’s format, or even preserve its name. The show came of age at a moment when it seemed presidential votes could be decided on technicalities in court and war could be conjured by cable news scare tactics. As the media landscape evolved, getting louder and more fragmented, Stewart was a human Richter scale for its escalating absurdity. And thanks to his influence, late-night comedy has figured out a way to make satirizing politics and news and pop-culture feel like a kind of real journalism, too. (I’ve already praised the way John Oliver spoofs his own research-heavy comedy.)
As the program wound down last night, Stewart addressed the camera tearily. “Seventeen years is the longest I have ever in my life held a job, by 16 years and 5 months,” he said. “In my heart I know it is time for someone else to have that opportunity.” He was right that 17 years is long enough, but passing the torch just doesn’t make sense. After one last Moment of Zen, it’s time to put The Daily Show to bed.