Comedy, as even the greenest open-mic comic can tell you, is all about timing. And timing isn’t just about how long to pause before a punchline or how long to let a heckler ramble before clobbering them; it’s about knowing when to get the hell offstage, and how to close with your strongest material. For just over 16 years now, Jon Stewart has carved out an inestimable niche as a satirist, media commentator, and talk show host — but he’s still a stand-up comedian at heart, and you’ve gotta give his surprising-but-not-surprising Daily Show retirement announcement this much: it’s perfectly timed. After a decade and a half of exquisitely executed double takes and deadpans, Stewart knew when it was time to say, “Thank you, goodnight!” and head to the bar.
After all, 2015 finds Stewart at the absolute height of his powers. And that’s not just in reference to the potency of his Daily Show and the ways in which it explicitly informs the cultural conversation (particularly in how its younger viewers see the show’s two most frequent targets, politics and media) — though there is certainly something to be said for going out on top. In the “fake news” realm, Stewart is doing what Jerry Seinfeld did in sitcoms and Vince Gilligan did in drama: ending his signature show at the height of its popular and critical success, rather than several years down the line, by which time its schtick might have gone stale. Stewart knows his history enough to know the danger of turning into Bob Hope or Johnny Carson, spending his golden years lobbing watered-down barbs at presidents he golfs with.
But perhaps more importantly, Stewart has become a media influencer — a kingmaker, really. Later this year, onetime Daily Show correspondent and former nightly spinoff host Stephen Colbert will take over The Late Show from David Letterman. Last month, Colbert’s replacement, The Nightly Show, fronted by fellow former Daily Show semi-regular Larry Wilmore, debuted to strong reviews and ratings. And last week, seven-year Daily Show vet John Oliver’s acclaimed HBO series Last Week Tonight began its second season, to further raves.
That’s three new additions to the late-night landscape, each with a host at the helm whom Stewart discovered, groomed, spotlighted, or appointed (in Oliver’s case, all of the above). And each of those shows is, in some way, an expansion of The Daily Show’s MO. Last Week’s one-big-story format seizes on The Daily Show’s knack for sociopolitical commentary, but does so with greater depth (and with fewer restrictions on content and language). The Nightly Show’s roundtable format allows the diversity of ideas and viewpoints seen in the Stewart’s best political interviews (particularly with those, like Mike Huckabee and Bill O’Reilly, who didn’t agree with him). And Colbert’s Late Show will presumably bring a new edge and energy to the traditional talk-show standbys of sketches and celebrity interviews (neither of which was Stewart’s strong suit).
And where does that leave Stewart’s Daily Show? From one perspective, it is the launching pad, the gold standard, Old Faithful; every night, there’s Stewart with his reliably smart and savvy take on the day’s news, a perch he could occupy for years to come, while the rest of us maintained our “I can’t wait to see what Stewart says about this” mindset. But it’s also easy to shift that perspective, ever so slightly, to see Stewart standing still while his progeny move forward. It’s no great stretch to imagine the reliably excellent Last Week Tonight surpassing The Daily Show in quality and influence (some claim it already has); a year from now, the story could have been that its other official and unofficial spin-offs had done the same.
Instead, the story will be “Don’t go, Jon Stewart!” And to be clear, this viewer concurs. But you can’t fault the guy for being ready to move on from nightly topical comedy — for God’s sake, he started the gig doing Lewinsky jokes. His move into feature filmmaking may have yielded mixed results, but it served as a reminder that he’s a man of many talents, in a gig that provides the time to explore none of them. Maybe he’ll do more movies. Maybe he’ll write more books (his collection of S.J. Perelman/Woody Allen-esque comic essays, Naked Pictures of Famous People, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read). Maybe he’ll return his full attention to stand-up, transforming into the kind of elder statesman of cutting political comedy that his idol George Carlin became. But whatever he does next, it’ll certainly be interesting — and will, in all probability, prove that this heartbreaking move is not only the smartest one for Stewart the artist, but for his television legacy.