In honor of yesterday’s shocking news, this AVQ&A finds staffers reflecting on just one important question:
What’s your initial reaction to Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show?
My reaction might be different from most because The Daily Show was the first place I worked after I got out of school, so it’s hard to detach my personal experience from the news. I worked in the field department from 2005 to 2006. My job was to pitch ideas for the show’s remote segments, and when Jon approved a pitch, I would get production underway by, for instance, finding interview subjects and convincing them to appear. (A couple of my favorite brainchildren: “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Big Brother” and “Pump My Ride”—that’s me in the blue car making a cameo as Gas Buyer Who Needs A Haircut.) The Daily Show staff was filled with smart, kind people who cared deeply about making a great show, which, in my biased opinion, we usually did. Nobody was more responsible for the program’s excellence than Jon, and not just because he was the face in front of the camera. He invested himself in every detail and would routinely oversee drastic rewrites in the two hours between an episode’s rehearsal and taping. It was a cool place to be, at a cool moment. Yet I grew bored, and the field department was something of a dead end due to weird intra-office politics at the time. After the midterm elections in 2006, I moved on. It was a tough decision that proved to be the right one for me. I’m proud to have worked at The Daily Show and even prouder that I had the wherewithal to leave.
So you can imagine that my first reaction to this news was to be happy for Jon Stewart. I don’t know if he got bored, yet I also don’t know how, after 15-plus years, he could have avoided it. One of his central principles was that the show had to keep evolving and never allow its format to stagnate—partly to “keep it fresh” but partly, I think, to keep himself interested. By now, the guy has made his mark. He developed a novel blend of comedy, politics, and media commentary whose influence is still reverberating. If he thinks it’s time for him to go, I’m inclined to believe he’s right. His instincts have always been on point in the past.
My second reaction: I feel bad for the people behind the scenes—writers, producers, editors, assistants—whose future is uncertain. When Jon first took over the show, many of the backstage folks from the Craig Kilborn era remained, which would seem to bode well for the current staff. But back then, Jon Stewart was not yet an icon; he was a semi-obscure comedian hired to host a decent basic-cable show. The Daily Show is a more potent platform now, and Comedy Central is liable to recruit an accordingly big name who will want to remake the show in his/her image. While Jon was the primary force that drove The Daily Show into a higher echelon, he was backed by a hell of a lot of talent. I hope that amid the paeans to Jon that are sure to ensue in the coming months, the staffers who still help shape and execute his vision will get their due, too.
My initial reaction is a purely selfish one: I’m not done with him, ergo, I don’t want him to leave. I’ve been watching The Daily Show since its premiere in 1996, when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn, and in one of the wrongest things I’ve ever said, I remember telling my college roommates that I wasn’t sure I would keep watching with Jon Stewart in the host’s chair. I knew Stewart as the gushing hipster in the baggy leather jacket introducing Blind Melon on The Jon Stewart Show, or setting up clips on Short Attention Span Theater, or humbly angling for Larry Sanders’ job. Surely this guy didn’t possess the sharp, acerbic wit of a Craig Kilborn. Almost immediately, Stewart proved me an idiot, and I’ve spent the past 16 years watching Stewart become something far more than just a wiseass, maturing into an avuncular, comical Cronkite who can reliably articulate the national mood, and cut the tension with a perfectly timed joke—or just a weary sigh. He’s been lambasted as a liberal propagandist (and he certainly will be again in the coming days and months), but that’s a simplistic read from the exact people he actually stood against: the politically poisoned, binary-minded ideologues who have to turn absolutely everything into a screaming match. Stewart made a big show of his “Rally To Restore Sanity,” but he made a much bigger impact by doing just that every night. It’s hard to imagine losing that voice of calm in the cacophony.
For me, it’s just a tinge of regret about not watching the show more. I used to be a fairly regular viewer, but it’s been years since I’ve seen more than one full episode every couple of months. I’m the bad fan who’s content to watch the clips that cut through the clutter and make their way to Facebook (or Newswire). But clearly there will be a void, not only in a very popular personality speaking truth to power without restriction—how often does that come along?—but also of a mostly very funny one. A lot of the reactions I’ve seen so far have been along the lines of “Where will I get my political news now?” and while I think a lot of those are at least partly joking, they’re also at least partly true.
This news has felt real to me in a way that other retirements didn’t. David Letterman and other long-running hosts saying goodbye have felt like big shifts in our cultural foundation, but this felt like my cultural bedrock crumbling. It’s the first time that “my” host has been saying goodbye. While Conan O’Brien was always going to end up back on TV, doing something similar, I don’t foresee Stewart repeating himself, meaning his nightly presence in my home will be gone for good. The Jon Stewart moment that will forever stay with me is actually not even a moment from the show itself, but rather Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire back in 2004. It’s a masterful display of exploiting the medium—it still feels genuinely transgressive and dangerous today, and captures everything that is great about Stewart: his smarts, his passion, his eloquence, and his ability to enact genuine, meaningful change upon American political culture. I look eagerly to his next project, but The Daily Show With Jon Stewart made me realize I was shirking my duties as a citizen; he’s one of the reasons I began teaching political science, and got a Ph.D. in American politics. I owe him more than I can say.
Watching the regular news can be a gut-wrenching experience: from climate change denial, to Sandy Hook, to this past awful year with the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson and the horror of Eric Garner’s death in New York. During times of crisis, I relied on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show broadcast. It’s not like I thought he would be able to make sense out of every incident—no one could—but Stewart, through humor, through intelligence, through a reasoned and reasonable perspective, would eloquently put into words what I was thinking, and make all of us feel like we were not alone in knowing how fucked-up everything was. Sure, he had (so) many entertaining segments, and I loved them all, but the moments that will stay with me are moments like this one after the Garner case, when even Stewart himself is at a loss. “If comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more fucking time,” he says. “But, I would really settle for less fucking tragedy.” No one even laughs, because it’s not a joke. It’s the truth.
The first day I taught an introduction to journalism class at the University Of Wisconsin-Milwaukee I played a Daily Show clip and asked my students, “What is journalism?” I was trying to draw out all the exciting things journalism could be, just as I had when I was an undergraduate journalism student considering the Daily Show as “real” news for the first time. Jon Stewart always provided a different kind of journalism from anyone else, combining reporting with wit and humor, of course, but more importantly throwing the past-its-time idea of “objectivity” in the garbage where it belongs. Too many journalists, and journalism students, adhere to illogical tenets of neutrality in reporting, which made Stewart’s show especially important in its treatment of ridiculous things as ridiculous and understanding that politics affect everyone, including the journalists reporting on it. No journalists should pretend to be outside of the systems they report on, and by reacting to news as humans instead of unfeeling “objective” robots, Stewart and his correspondents challenged what journalism has believed itself to be for a long time. It’s been hugely important and shaped the way I think about news making, both as a producer and a consumer. I hope whoever takes over continues in the tradition of expanding what journalism can be (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Jessica Williams), and I hope the ethos of objectiveless reporting spreads beyond the Daily Show. Everyone in the news business needs to take a cue from Stewart, especially in light of his departure.
To me, Stewart’s departure is just another reminder about the wealth of amazing talent that has come out of The Daily Show. I was heartbroken when The Colbert Report went off the air late last year, but I wouldn’t have gotten to watch that show were it not for The Daily Show. And, while I think Steve Carell is an immense talent that would have made it on his own someday, he got pushed into the ether just a little faster thanks to his amazingly obtuse and off-the-wall tenure on—you guessed it—The Daily Show.
I’ve long been a fan of Stewart’s, ever since his MTV days, but I think he’s outgrown The Daily Show. He’s become an icon, a figurehead, and a political voice to be reckoned with. He might be leaving to direct more movies or take more naps, but I’d love it if he’d go the Al Franken route and enter public service. He’s got so many friends in high places that, hopefully, he could get some shit done.
The news of Stewart’s departure also took me back to The Daily Show’s first changing of the guard, though I was such a pop-culture baby when it happened: I was in eighth grade, but I’d followed Craig Kilborn’s trajectory from SportsCenter to The Daily Show, and reruns of the Kilborn-helmed show were staples of my after-school and summer-break TV diet. Any opinion I may have had about the new guy had been absorbed a few years earlier, when The Jon Stewart Show‘s failure to launch temporarily transformed the comedian into a Gen X punching bag for magazines I was too young to be reading. I mourned the loss of 5 Questions, but I got over it, and watched with great enthusiasm as Stewart helped shape The Daily Show into something sharper, smarter, and less arch. I grew up alongside The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, developed a sense of ownership toward it, and though I’m no longer the regular viewer I once was, this is the first late-night retirement that makes me feel like I’m losing My Guy. I can’t be the only one in my age bracket who feels this way: Letterman belongs to our parents; Conan, as important as his Late Night was to me, is more like an older sibling. Through The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, I learned that the rage and confusion that are so often prompted by our garbage planet can be channeled into something positive. That’s something I’ll carry with me as I watch another new host figure out what their Daily Show will be—even if that show longer feels like it’s my Daily Show.