After 16 years sitting behind the desk of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart signed off for the last time last Friday (Australian time).
With the assistance of nearly every contributor to the show across his reign, video message taunts from some of his most notable targets, a Goodfellas-style narrated tour of his office and an appearance by “the Boss” (aka Bruce Springsteen), it was an emotional conclusion to a run which has helped redefine political satire for a generation.
When Stewart took over stewardship of The Daily Show from Craig Killborn at the start of 1999, the Comedy Central show only had a couple of hundred thousand viewers and was more of a straight-up parody of the news. Under Stewart’s direction the show took on a more political slant. It began picking apart the self interest and hypocrisy of politicians and the absurdity of the media reporting on it.
Dropped into the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, rising to prominence on the back of stinging coverage of the 2000 Presidential election and the resultant Bush administration, Stewart had ample fuel to fire his comedic ire. He presented the seemingly incomprehensible strangeness of everyday events in a way which resonated with people – not just in America, but all over the world.
It was no wonder that Stewart often rivalled real news anchors in polls of whom Americans trusted to deliver their news.
The roll call of Daily Show’s “Best F#@cking News Team Ever” is another display of the show’s influence. Among them are the next wave of TV hosts (Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Samantha Bee and, of course, new host Trevor Noah) and comedic actors fronting successful TV shows, Broadway musicals and films (the likes of Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Josh Gad, Rob Corddry).
His disappearance from late-night TV will leave a hole impossible to directly replace. But the platitudes and eulogies delivered in the months since Stewart announced his intention to leave have hidden the subtle decline of the once unconquerable show.
Stewart’s attention has appeared divided for some time. Back in 2013 he took a summer sabbatical to direct his debut feature film Rosewater. The show was left in the hands of then-correspondent John Oliver, who quickly proved that the apparatus established by Stewart was bigger than one man.
On his return it felt like he never quite recaptured the gleeful histrionics of his prior work. With The Colbert Report continuing to go from strength to strength in the timeslot directly after, and the new upstart from Oliver on HBO afforded a wealth of time to dissect issues, The Daily Show began to fall behind some of its more brash contemporaries.
Over the past few years the show’s US ratings dropped from about 1.6 million viewers a night, to around 1.2 million (http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-overhyped-reaction-to-jon-stewart-leaving/). It lost its iron clench on the best late show Emmy, albeit to The Colbert Report (which Stewart was a producer on).
The Emmy loss felt like not only the passing of the baton to a new wave of hosts, but an acknowledgment that his style of satire was being surpassed.
While the bevy of 24-hour cable news channels increasingly influencing the ways in which people consumed media, they also became prime targets for The Daily Show – CNN and Fox News particular favourites for lampooning.
But as media has changed, so have the ways in which people gather their news. It’s no wonder that new host Noah has intimated that he’s much more interested in looking at some of the new players to the new reporting realm – predominantly the likes of Gawker, Buzzfeed and Vice.
As the clock ticked down on his incumbency, Stewart made overt attempts to downplay his influence on popular culture. He gave no interviews, save for an appearance on the show’s own podcast. Dubbed “the definitive exit interview”, the near half hour was dedicated to discussing the eating and catering habits of the show’s staff.
The final months of his tenure pointed to Stewart’s relief for his duties to end: he frequently chatted with guests about his desire to walk away, inserted increasingly frequent clip segments and deconstructed his lack of influence on global events. When claims of “secret” meetings with President Obama arose that some critics pointed to as evidence of biased agenda, Stewart hit back with a rather resigned defence of the show in comparison to some of his previous fire-breathing retorts. When he popped up on The Nightly Show to appear in a segment about Obama “not giving a shit”, they didn’t need to spell the joke out for the audience.
From an Australian perspective, Stewart’s legacy, without our late night TV culture, or ready access to his show, will perhaps be more limited.
Keeping up with The Daily Show hasn’t always been easy for Australian fans. There was a time back in the mid-noughtieswhere you could find it readily on the ABC. That all changed however, when the rights for both it and The Colbert Report were bought by The Comedy Channel which was only available, somewhat ironically, on Foxtel.
But for thoseof us who could get our hands on The Daily Show on a frequent basis, his departure marks the end of an era where you could switch on something four days a week and laugh your ass off to something that was insightful, intelligent and downright funny.
Farewell Jon, we’ll miss you.