Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)

In last night’s penultimate The Daily Show With Jon Stewart—which reverts back to simply The Daily Show after tonight—Jon Stewart did a segment called “The Daily Show: Destroyer Of Worlds,” which set out to destroy, instead, the idea that The Daily Show has had any effect on the world at all. In showing clips plucked from Stewart’s 16-year-plus run as host (and targeting depressingly similar targets), the segment served the dual purpose of re-emphasizing the streak of self-deprecation the now-former host has always maintained (even as his cultural influence has inarguably grown), and continuing the Daily Show’s mission of letting the air out of hyperbole, wherever it occurs.

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That show’s guest, the similarly venerated comic icon Louis CK, with his signature no-nonsense authority, touted Stewart, saying “you were a voice of reason, and you were funny, and this was one of the most impressive comic achievements of all time.” Yet Stewart’s exasperated statement from the end of his opening bit still hung in the air, as it has through all the celebratory hoopla in this last week of shows—“The world is demonstrably worse than when I started this!” It’s the same maddening, soul-sapping futility that all political satirists share, eventually—no matter how cleverly they turn a phrase or hold power up to ridicule, in the end, the practical effects of all their efforts are too easily swept aside by humanity’s capacity to be just plain awful.

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And yet.

What Stewart brought to The Daily Show—theretofore a fitfully funny outlet for former host Craig Kilborn’s outsized, snarky comic persona (and ego)—was a sense of mission. And, very simply (and hopefully), that mission was to make things better. While unabashedly “of the left,” Stewart’s targets are, first and always, those who seek to manipulate the truth for political gain, be they politicians or—equally and perniciously powerful—those of the news media, especially those employed at Fox News, dubbed lastingly by Stewart as “Bullshit Mountain.” (Another on-target bit from last night was a montage of Fox and others introducing stories about Stewart being critical of President Obama with, “Even Jon Stewart criticized the President…,” leading Stewart to ask if they couldn’t just leave off the “even.”)

For all the partisan sniping from his critics that Stewart isn’t being fair (to say nothing of balanced), what draws the ire of Stewart and his staff most are those whose intellectual dishonesty reduces government—which should, it’s implied in Stewart’s comedy, be a rational institution pushing for a wiser, more just world—to a childish, partisan slap-fight, subsidized by the wealthy and powerful, and devoted to nothing but its own continuance. That’s what makes the end of Jon Stewart’s run so dismaying, especially on the eve of the first, predictably pandering and ugly Republican presidential debate of the season—there’s just so much bullshit left to shine a light on.

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Stewart’s incoming replacement, Trevor Noah, has a lot of pressure on him, much more than simply that of being the new guy. Notwithstanding the lingering backlash over some of his more ill-considered social media jokes from years past, viewers of The Daily Show look to it as a half-hour, four-times-a-week oasis of sanity amid the incessant babble of televised self-interest, hypocrisy, and outright chicanery that’s become the bread-and-butter of our public discourse. Stewart may look back and half-seriously declare that his nearly 17 years in the chair haven’t improved the American political landscape. But they have. When failed Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney was caught on hidden camera disparaging “47 per cent” of America in a speech he thought was only for the ears of wealthy (white) donors, Stewart’s epic takedown sprang from the heart of that mission—on The Daily Show’s watch it was no longer possible for policy makers to say one thing to the people who agreed with them, and another for public consumption.

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Stewart’s final episode manages to convey that feeling of optimism without sacrificing the show’s central idea that the mission isn’t over, all in the shape of a joyous party. Considering the show aired on the same night of the first GOP debate—which, whew, you’re welcome, Trevor Noah—Stewart’s opening conceit that his last show will take the form of an extended dissection of such prime comedy fodder gives way (at least partly because, you know, the show was actually recorded hours ahead of time) to a parade of nearly every correspondent ever on any incarnation of the show. (Hi, Mo Rocca and Vance Degeneres!) It’s one of those expected ideas that nonetheless turns into an escalating, giddy delight, with everyone getting their moment to do a bit, all leading to Stephen Colbert’s apparently unscripted—and heartfelt—paean to his erstwhile boss:

We owe you…because we learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, and how to treat people with respect. You were infuriatingly good at your job, okay. And all of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people for having known you. You are a great artist and a good man.

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That Stewart tries, twice—and tearfully—to shut down Colbert’s speech could come off like simple showbiz fakery, if the whole finale weren’t marked with that sort of generosity and spontaneity. Stewart leads a Goodfellas-inspired tour of the backstage, just so he can individually spotlight everyone who works on the show (and Martin Scorcese, who berates him for ripping off his movie—Stewart’s favorite—yet one more time). And the end of the show sees Stewart ceding the spotlight to fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen, whose two farewell numbers run well in to the eponymous starting time for @Midnight. Clearly, Comedy Central was content with letting the party run, a happy choice that sees the cast, crew, and all the collected correspondents dancing with abandon and snapping pictures while the E Street Band plays the show out with “Land Of Hope And Dreams” and “Born To Run.”

Unlike Colbert’s last show, which, in keeping with the character’s heightened artificiality, ended with a choreographed (if still undeniably delightful) singalong of “We’ll Meet Again,” Stewart’s sign-off took the form of a spontaneous block party, with all his assembled troops in the show’s mission dancing and hugging and saying goodbye to one of the most influential political satirists in television history.

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But, as Stewart’s last monologue succinctly puts it, “Bullshit is everywhere.” And, after outlining the three categories of bullshit people need to watch for (“making bad things sound like good things,” “hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit,” and “the bullshit of infinite possibility”), Stewart concludes with the optimistic benediction that “bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance—and it’s also pretty fun.”

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Indeed.

Stray observations

  • My tally of the Daily Show correspondents on hand to say goodbye: Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, John Hodgman, Lewis Black, Jessica Williams, Jordan Klepper, Hasan Minhaj, Kristen Schaal, Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls, Vance Degeneres, Mo Rocca, Dave Attell, Matt Walsh, Dan Bakkedahl, Larry Wilmore (angry that The Nightly Show got bumped), Jason Jones, Rob Corddry, Nate Corddry, Darth Vader (angry about being compared to Dick Cheney—”there’s the dark side and then there’s whatever he calls his sick thing”), Bassem Youssef, Michael Che, heir apparent Trevor Noah (measuring the set—and Jon’s inseam), predecessor Craig Kilborn, Olivia Munn, Rob Riggle, Ed Helms, Gitmo, John Oliver, and Colbert.
  • Oh, and Wyatt Cenac, whose well-publicized conflict with Stewart is addressed in a bit that defuses the story simply through Cenac’s good-sport presence. The loaded nature of the Cenac-Stewart situation has been one of the unspoken clouds over Stewart’s goodbye tour since the story broke last week that Stewart once blew up over Cenac questioning the host’s Herman Cain impression on racial grounds. While Cenac’s appearance here doesn’t erase the lingering uneasiness over what Daily Show executive producer Steve Bodow admitted were “blind spots” surrounding Cenac’s time on the show, it’s a nice gesture on Cenac’s part to make such a public show of addressing it. Plus, seeing Cenac join in on the exuberant correspondent scrum around Stewart after the segment is a hopeful sign that he and Stewart have had more of a meaningful conversation than the bit they did here.
  • The eyes of the Daily Show staffers tasked with watching Fox News are bleeding.
  • Nancy Walls: “How dare you, Jon, I have two children to raise.” Steve Carell: “And I have three.”
  • “You can’t stop anyone because they don’t work for you any more. Huge mistake, Jon.”
  • Pass me my salty goggles, that’s a wrap on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping the new kid can pick up where Stewart left off. God knows, we need him to.

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