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How Jon Stewart and 'The Daily Show' changed late-night TV
To fully appreciate the cultural impact Jon Stewart achieved during his 16-year run with "The Daily Show," it helps to recall what the program looked like before he and his band of merry jesters arrived on the scene.
Hosted by Craig Kilborn, the Comedy Central outpost was a forgettable bit of goofery, or what Rolling Stone described as a "frat boy clubhouse indulging in celebrity T&A jokes." Under Stewart, the "fake newscast" eventually evolved into an enterprise that not only offered plenty of cathartic laughter but an invaluable public service, acting as, in the words of veteran TV newsman Tom Brokaw, "the citizens' surrogate."
There was, after all, power behind those jokes. Every time Stewart skewered a lying politician, it served as a reminder to rigorously question authority. Every time he lampooned a bombastic media pundit, he gave voice to the outrage of angry millennials and his other devotees who now span the generations.
On Thursday, America's leading satirist surrenders his anchor chair, making way for the relatively unknown Trevor Noah and leaving fans to wonder where in the world they'll find their Moment of Zen. "The Daily Show" will never be the same.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Change happens, and Stewart himself has said that he's looking forward to seeing how the format will evolve. "You can only go so far with four facial expressions and five-to-seven curse words," the self-deprecating satirist insists. "There are only so many iterations of that."
Transformative: Oh, but Stewart amounted to much more than a few funny faces and potty talk. Deploying the props of an actual TV newscast — the anchor desk, the graphic backdrops, the contributing correspondents — he transformed the way comedy intersects with politics and journalism, while gleefully tossing "spitballs" at frauds, hypocrites and cheats.
"He has done for political humor what the microwave did for appliance stores," says veteran Bay Area comic Will Durst, who has made his mark in the same genre. "He brought people back by making smart comedy funny and accessible."
News, but funny: It might be tempting to lump Stewart in with Leno and Letterman and other icons of late-night television, but, clearly, he was on a whole different playing field. A smirky, spiritual cousin of Will Rogers, Stewart held our leaders and various institutions accountable, often saying the things that media types couldn't or wouldn't say.
And there was a creative brilliance in the delivery. Funny labels were slapped on certain segments, like "Indecision 2000" for election coverage in the year of the hanging chad, or "Mess O'Potamia" for stories dealing with troubles in the Middle East. He had boisterous fun with the botched Obamacare rollout ("How are they going to spin this turd?") and sarcastically waged a "war" on Christmas just to point out the absurdity of such a notion.
Stewart and his team also made hilarious use of video clips to catch politicians and pundits contradicting themselves. And they were smart enough to realize when a clip didn't need to be topped with a scripted zinger because the reality was ridiculous enough on its own.
Critical praise justifiably followed. The New York Times dubbed him "the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow." Rolling Stone lauded him as "an essential counterpoint to the nonstop noise of cable news." Last week, his guest President Barack Obama jokingly threatened an executive order to prevent him from leaving.
Forum: The New Jersey native started out doing stand-up and later presided over a popular talk show on MTV. But "The Daily Show" proved to be the perfect forum for Stewart's rapid-fire wit, his radar for hogwash and his empathy for life's underdogs. Yes, the show had a liberal bent, but Stewart made punching bags of blowhards on the right and left, an proved that laughter, indeed, can be the best medicine.
That said, viewers increasingly turned to "The Daily Show" not just for the laughs, but for a provocative, instructive source of news — even as Stewart routinely downplayed his clout. He was a comedian, not a journalist or leader of social movements, he would say, describing his program as an "odd potpourri of outrage and sanctimony and preachiness, with fart jokes."
But polls and studies repeatedly found that millennials used the show as their primary source of political information. Headlines wondered: "Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?" Meanwhile, countless websites and blogs took to reporting his sly takes on the big issues, or simply posting his monologues as if they, themselves, were news. He was a prime player in the national discourse.
At times, he was even the one making the news — as when he systematically shredded Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire" ("Stop hurting America," he snapped at Carlson), or during his spirited jousts with Bill O'Reilly, or when he and Stephen Colbert addressed more than 200,000 people in Washington, D.C., at the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Some of the strongest reactions Stewart elicited during his "Daily Show" run were when he shed his funnyman mask to deliver heartfelt messages — as he did during a tearful opener in the show's return after the 9/11 attacks, or recently when he offered a powerful monologue about the Charleston, South Carolina, church shootings: "Once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn't exist."
Now, as Stewart prepares to leave late-night TV behind, you have to wonder: Who can possibly fill his shoes?
The good news is that the talents he helped to nurture are already making their mark in notable ways. Colbert takes over David Letterman's old desk in September. John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, both "Daily Show" alums, now lend their distinctive voices to a couple of similar programs.
And so it would seem that even as Stewart departs, his considerable influence will live on.