Jon Stewart’s last episode of The Daily Show is tonight, and everyone promises to miss him, even if, like me, they stopped watching him religiously years ago. It wasn’t too long after he made his mawkish 2004 plea to Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to “stop hurting America”—and, as a result, became the most celebrated man in TV news—that I decided I’d rather be friends with Carlson instead. Which is to say I didn’t watch The Daily Show to be flattered for my political views. I was a young-fogey conservative: pro-life, anti-tax, and all the rest. I was more interested in reading mournful elegies for Western civilization; Stewart was a god to my Kerry-voting friends and family, but to me, he was the voice of the others, the know-it-alls everywhere around me, albeit one of the more tolerable and entertaining ones.
At its best, though, Stewart’s version of the show could be truly great. Between 2000 and 2006, it managed to lap all its obvious influences. Its winking look at the headlines evoked Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, and its reportorial style owes something to Michael Moore’s short-lived mid-’90s series TV Nation. And it still owes more than you realize to Craig Kilborn’s earlier incarnation of the show, which debuted in 1996 and lasted just three years. Just look at this old 1998 episode. Kilborn and crew suffer from the need for more writers compared to Stewart’s juggernaut, but the format is all there. A funny riff on the top headlines. A dig through more odd stories found then in the back pages of newspapers. And look, there’s a Stephen Colbert-starring satire of a soft-focus remote report, and then an interview.
But at some point during the George W. Bush years, Stewart’s Daily Show became the last non-sports instance of nightly appointment television. The seriousness of the times made it urgent. Jon had always embodied the over-comfortable, perpetually adolescent pop cynicism of the 1990s. But when confronted with an administration that lied about something more grave than using an intern for blowjobs (and a news media that shit the bed in its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War), our host grew into something electrifying. Without being tied to cable-news conventions or even the pretense of being “fair,” he had the ability and authority to put a politician on blast himself, not just give airtime to others doing so. But then again, I was against the Iraq War, too. The Daily Show was always best when you most agreed with it.
But in the last few years, the show’s DNA went viral across the Internet and the rest of television, and Stewart became unnecessary, shrinking behind his desk while his former B-team took over the rest of the world. Steve Carrell became the star of a hugely successful network sitcom and is now a leading man gunning for Oscars. Colbert is taking over for Letterman. And John Oliver has basically just compressed The Daily Show into a tighter weekly format where he expresses long-form outrage at a single problem while making jokes about the disgusting food plebes eat.
If The Daily Show had any effect on our actual political culture, it was probably to the benefit of conservatives. In its absence, many young liberals might have confronted the George W. Bush years and engaged in actual political projects, like the campus left of the 1960s. But the show encouraged its viewers in the comforting belief that being clever was enough. Why get up and organize to defeat Bush? Stewart was kicking his ass four nights a week. You had to be blind not to see Stewart’s “everyman” mask stretched ever more tightly over his head as the years went by and the accolades rolled in.
Which is how the nervous, unsure guy who complained that his suit was itchy in his very first episode is now so comfortable in his Armani gear and in his role in the political-entertainment complex that he’s spending his last week pretending to throw actual grenades at his Fox News critics, like an action hero winking at the camera throughout the last cash-grabbing installment of an overextended franchise. Spare me. Stewart owes his success to the enormous gap between the sacred-truth-telling pretensions of broadcast news organizations and the actual purpose of all those shows: to entertain people who are doing nothing more interesting than passively watching television. “We need help, from the media, and they are hurting us,” he told Begala and Carlson back in 2004. Now that I think about it, fuck off.
Stewart’s entire Daily Show empire is built on the blameworthy conceit that cable news networks—businesses that survive by selling Cialis ads against hyperventilating coverage of pop-star meltdowns, celebrity infidelities, and conspiracy theories about missing planes–should otherwise be capable of helping the American people save their Republic from venal politicians, dumb wars, and corporate greed. But he should know better—not just as a TV insider, but as an adult. Television is show business. Even broadcast news. Many of Stewart’s enemies figured that out long ago: Carlson’s 2003 book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, which had predicted the demise of Crossfire, has a much more realistic view of the cable-news biz, where fame-humping guests and fake experts are compensated with nothing but green-room coffee. It’s an industry of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and drunks; if an actual story of political or social significance ever broke out on cable news, it was a happy accident, and not at all the intent of the producers, or the network. Stewart spent his days EVISCERATING something that had long already been eviscerated.
Like every sensible human these days, I’m nostalgic for the ’90s. Apocalyptic thinking was rare and dumb then, not common. We had relative peace and prosperity and, it seemed to me, an awareness that media figures are trivial, that they only acquired any dignity by the sheer length of time they remained a part of the passing scene. So the more I look back on Stewart’s iteration, the more warmly I feel toward the Kilborn years. Stewart used his simpering, mugging face to make himself into the conscience of a nation; he insisted he was a clown, but believed himself a Cronkite. He used self-deprecation to make his audience feel smarter and morally superior in a nation gone crazy. It overinflated him, and it overinflated the rest of the narrow slice of upwardly mobile urban liberals who adored him.
Whereas Kilborn’s schtick was to reveal the common news anchor for the shallow, boozy, pretty-boy, Q-rating-obsessed naif he inevitably was. He used self-incrimination to make his audience feel implicated in a toxic celebrity culture; his successor used flattery to make his larger and more powerful audience feel falsely inoculated against it. When I contemplate Stewart grinning at the “legacy” being universally celebrated this week, I can’t help but miss “Kilby’s” humbler gags about the show’s state-of-the-art copying machine. He knew more than Stewart that the man behind the desk doesn’t exist to present the truth to the audience. In reality, the audience exists to project the fantasy of importance to the man behind the desk, whose real job is to keep passive people from flipping to another’s station’s boner-pill commercials. Everyone is congratulating Stewart this week for being the last man in on the joke.
Lead photo by AP.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter.