What has Jon Stewart meant to life, liberty, and the satiric pursuit of justice on TV these past 16 years? Easy enough answer. Just think about what they and TV will be like without him:
On Thursday -- his last day at "The Daily Show" -- the GOP debate will air on Fox News. On Aug. 10, when his next "Daily Show" would have aired, there will be only silence.
A yawning silence.
Under normal circumstances, or those of the past four election cycles, Stewart would have feasted on the debate for days. Instead, next Monday, Comedy Central will air a repeat of another show, still to be determined. For millions of fans, it may as well be a test pattern.
The void will be shocking for some, for others heartbreaking.
Jon Stewart is gone. Now what -- or whom?
For haters -- yup, there are plenty of those, too -- the absence will mean something else entirely. It's almost tempting to think Fox and the GOP scheduled the debate as a final rebuke to their longtime tormentor, denying him both material and use of the entire stage on his last day. Many eyes will be on the debate on Thursday. Stewart, relatively speaking, will go just a little more quietly into the night than he would have otherwise.
Nevertheless, for both sides, something surreal is about to happen. Stewart has pontificated about and railed against and above all laughed at the manifest follies of media and the political process -- most notably Fox News and the Republican Party -- for so long that he has carved out a separate zeitgeist-within-the-zeitgeist.
Come hither -- reads the sign on its door -- for the brutally funny other side of the story.
He has been and remains a primary source of news for a generation younger than 35. He was once voted among TV's "most trusted" anchors by various polls -- and as Stewart would be the first to point out, he is not even an anchor. He's launched careers (Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver), spawned incipient political movements (the Rally to Restore Sanity), published books (three) and directed a well-regarded movie ("Rosewater").
By a wide consensus, he's the most effective media critic in the long history of the media. By an equally wide consensus, he's the most lacerating political critic -- in TV or print -- since Henry Louis Mencken.
What will TV be like without him? Maybe that answer's not so easy after all.
"It's difficult to overstate the impact he has had on both politics and media," says Mark Feldstein, a former investigative producer for CNN and now chairman of the journalism program at the University of Maryland. "He really raised and sharpened the stakes and developed a new kind of satire of the media itself that has helped educate an entire generation about the manipulative stupidity of mainstream political coverage. I particularly see it in the students I teach -- a whole level of sophistication that an earlier generation did not have because (he) just clued them in to a lot of the dirty little secrets of formulaic, unquestioning coverage that constitutes the media political circus. He pulled back the drapes, revealing Oz in all its flimflammery."
Stewart himself told NPR's Terry Gross last fall, "I do know that there will never be anything that I will be as well-suited for as this show." But, he added, "There were moments when you realize that's not enough anymore or that maybe it's time for some discomfort."
Or, as he told me on the eve of his risky "Daily Show" launch in January 1999 -- following a succession of canceled-too-soon talk shows, or missed opportunities: "You don't want to be one of those guys at an older age, sitting at the edge of the bar .. moaning about your career. You try not to have any regrets, and the only way is to do what you think is good and right at the time."
Stewart is now at that older age -- a mere 52 -- and it is fair to say that the risk has paid off. For an entire cohort of left-leaning viewers, he has so profoundly framed how they look at the world that it's as if he took the hammer and nails himself, then banged the frame into place.
In a sense, he did. By basting those he deemed to be the charlatans, scoundrels, popinjays and feckless political operators of the Washington and media scenes, Stewart was simply doing what satirists and stand-up comics have always done. "I am the Highlander," he once said. "There's been a form of me around forever."
But Stewart staked claim to a higher ground. Over 16 years, he was also a media shamer who torched a fast-growing -- or metastasizing -- TV news stratagem of dividing viewers and the news they watched into political camps, of left versus right, blue state versus red.
Fox News was the favorite target -- "another night, another 'Daily Show' about Fox News," Esquire's Tom Junod once accurately observed -- but he reserved his real venom for CNN, which he called a squandered opportunity, albeit in significantly harsher terms. He decried the shouting of the talking heads -- sometimes by shouting himself.
Stewart, in fact, often held TV news to a far higher standard than it held itself to. As he explained at the outset of the 2010 Rally, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker -- or get eczema. We hear every damn day (on the news channels) about how fragile our country is, and how we're on the brink of catastrophe and torn by polarizing hate. But we work together to get things done every damn day."
Now, about that future and the keen absence that is about to be felt? Longtime viewers have often suspected a certain ambivalence in Stewart himself about his role. Change agent or comic? He has usually insisted that he was only the latter.
During an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow a couple of years ago, for example, he said, "I feel more of a kinship to Jerry Seinfeld than to what you guys or NBC News does. He's able to comedically articulate an intangible for people."
But, he added, almost ruefully, "I think you're in a better game. (Journalists) are on the playing fields, I'm in the stands yelling things."
Stewart has declined exit interview requests -- all of them, according to a spokesman for Comedy Central -- leaving fans, admirers and adversaries to do some articulating of their own.
The world, and his targets, didn't change all that much over these many years. He certainly established a tight, unbreakable bond with viewers -- about a million and a half each night (compared to around 4 million for "Tonight Show). But the fights he waged, notably on behalf of veterans, remain far from finished, while the VA remains mired in controversy and wait lines. (His support of Sept. 11 first responders apparently continues, according to this report in Politico)..
Larry Sabato, author of the influential political website, Sabato's Crystal Ball, and professor of politics at the University of Virginia. says "it's wrong to say of social critics that because his or her target didn't collapse, then they've failed. That's not the point -- it's to make people think about what they are seeing and hearing and to maybe view the information they are getting differently. You don't even have to agree, but at least you can see another perspective. I see him as a social critic and not a political actor who should be judged on whether his targets succeed or fail. If you want to enact change, you should run for office. Commentators are never going to get these things done."
"What's the world going to be like without Jon Stewartw" Sabato adds."It is regrettable that no one is going to be doing long-form criticism anymore. The other late-night hosts do stand-up jokes one right after another, but you don't get any sustained focus the way you do with Stewart. To really have an impact, a simple bada-bing bada-boom joke is not enough to change anything."
All of a sudden, late-night TV -- indeed, all of TV -- feels a lot less funny, and a lot poorer. The void looms.
Jon Stewart, the career timeline
1984 Graduates College of William and Mary
1987 Stand-up debut at the Bitter End, later becomes regular at the Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street.
1989 First TV job, as writer for A&E's "Caroline's Comedy Hour."
1991 Co-host, Comedy Central's "Short attention Span Theater," with Patty Rosborough
1992 Host of MTV improv series, "You Wrote It, You Watch It."
1993 Host of "The Jon Stewart Show," breakout hit for MTV; show is subsequently turned into a syndicated series for Paramount, by MTV parent, Viacom. That one flops.
1996 Begins recurring role on "The Larry Sanders Show."
1998 First humor book, "Naked Pictures of Famous People," published.
1999 Begins hosting "The Daily Show," replaces Craig Kilborn; also appears in Adam Sandler comedy "Big Daddy."
2001, 2002 Hosts the Grammys
2004 Appears on CNN's "Crossfire," criticizes show on the air; "Crossfire" canceled early following year. Second book, which was written with "TDS" staff, published: "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction."
2006 Hosts the 78th annual Academy Awards; returns as host in 2008, for the 80th annual awards.
2010 Holds rally in Washington, D.C., with Stephen Colbert, called "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear"; more than 200,000 in attendance. Third book -- also written with staff -- published: "Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race."
2013 Takes 12-week hiatus to direct "Rosewater," based on "Then They Came for Me," by Maziar Bahari, a Canadian Iranian journalist imprisoned in Iran after appearance on "TDS."
2015 Announces departure from "TDS" during taping in February.