Among the many theories -- none verified or confirmed – about why Jon Stewart really quit “The Daily Show” after 16 years and on the eve of an election that provided enough material to fill all of those (and then some) is this:
He didn’t want to compete with his friend, Stephen Colbert.
Stewart knew Colbert would eventually get “The Late Show” after David Letterman retired. That was an open secret everybody knew. He also knew that by competing against Colbert, “The Late Show” and new host would operate in some sort of late night penumbra, while the bright hot light continued to shine on Stewart and his “Daily Show.”
So Stewart quit, went to the farm in New Jersey, spent time with his family, signed a deal with HBO -- that now is beginning to look like the sort of deal that will be fulfilled by the NEXT election -- and watched Colbert.
He didn’t exactly just watch. He became an executive producer of “Late Show” -- a title he still holds -- although the role appears to be more advisory than hands on. Chris Licht, former chief of “CBS This Morning,” is the hands-on boss, and has succeeded by letting Colbert do what Colbert does so well: Ripping POTUS.
But somewhere in this late night CBS turnaround story is the invisible hand of Jon Stewart. Really, it’s more visible than invisible because, when you stop to think about it, Stewart’s “Daily Show” never really ended at all, but morphed into Colbert’s “Late Show.” It’s all there, and he’s all there: The fury, the satire, the unerring and relentless taste for the jugular ... Colbert’s doing all of that, and doing it better than anyone else on late night TV -- of course, easily exceeding “Saturday Night Live,” which takes vacations between original editions.
Tuesday’s “reunion” show on “Late Show” -- bringing together Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms and Stewart -- was a pleasant walk down memory lane (a much longer version of that walk, by the way, can be had in the 2016 oral history by Chris Smith, “The Daily Show: The Book.” ) But beyond the anecdotes, and bits, and ersatz facial hair styles recreated in a “Stephen’s last day at “The Daily Show” -- there was the obvious reminder that Stewart, in fact, established all of these careers. It was hardly even a representative class reunion. The stage couldn’t have held the “TDS” crowd: Mo Rocca, Aasif Mandvi, Jordan Klepper, Beth Littleford, Steve Carell, Jason Jones (spouse of Bee), Lewis Black, Frank DeCaro and, of course, Larry Wilmore. That’s just a partial list.
Stewart’s done just fine in “retirement,” too, because he never really retired.
The exchange between Colbert and Stewart at the outset of this “reunion” show was noteworthy:
Does he miss the show?
Stewart: “There are nights where I find myself impotently shouting into the abyss which, if you think about it, wasn’t that different from what I did on a nightly basis.”
Colbert: “Ultimately these shows are shouting into an Altoids tin and throwing it off an overpass...”
Stewart: “The process of making these shows somehow became involved with my process of making sense of things I don’t understand. That merged at some level. I miss that and you and all the great people that were around it. (Also) in life very few people applaud you, like here, you come out and there’s a response and affirmation that you don’t necessarily get among sheep and goats ... But the things I’ve gained in terms of time spent with the family I wouldn’t give up fro anything.”
There was talk about Bill O’Reilly’s firing.
“The place was run by a guy, Roger Ailes, who was doing the same things ... . How do you call in someone and say this sexual harassment stuff, it’s gotta stop, when you’re paying out the money? There is, was, no accountability throughout the entire building.”
Politics came up, the president -- not so much.
Referring to Colbert’s mock expletive-laden tirade last week -- which quickly launched a #firecolbert social media movement and which just as quickly dissipated like rain on hot pavement -- Stewart said:
“The things that you say, even if they’re crass, even if they in some ways are not respectful enough to the office of the presidency, can insult, but HE can injure. For the life of me, I do not understand why in this country we try and hold comedians to a standard we do not hold our leaders to.”
Ah, in fact, Stewart spent 16 years holding those leaders accountable to exactly that. His brood -- notably Bee, Oliver and now Colbert -- continue to do so as well.
Nothing has changed. Jon Stewart is still among the living, his lacerating anger -- and wit -- too. So much for “retirement.”