Perhaps it was only by comparison to the months-long send-off for David Letterman earlier this summer that Jon Stewart’s farewell to The Daily Show could seem so, well, low-key. It’s not that he snuck out the back door or something, but after The Late Show’s parade of tributes and “last visits” and primetime specials, it almost seemed that Stewart and his crew decided they didn’t want to appear ostentatious or anything (it seems possible Stewart, an admirer of Letterman, also didn’t want to seem as though he considered himself equally important). So they did a few retrospective montages, brought back some favorite guests, and teed up an admirably self-deprecating existential crisis segment on the penultimate program. Last night’s double-length farewell show found Stewart and the Daily Show crew finally getting full-on sentimental — to great effect.
Yet at the show’s commencement, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal. One of their running inside jokes has been the winking non-acknowledgment that they tape in the afternoon, and thus often haven’t covered the evening’s big political events (primaries, presidential addresses, etc.), which are thus referred to in the vaguest possible terms; here, the final episode began at the conclusion of the first GOP WWE warm-up show presidential debate, with TDS’s current correspondents “live from Cleveland,” spouting such non-descriptors as, “I thought Jeb did well,” “Walker was solid,” and, of course, “I can’t believe Trump took out his penis!”
Using the bloated size of the Republican pack as an excuse to bring in additional contributors was a masterstroke — and a reminder, when considering them all at once, of what a gifted crew of alumni the show graduated (comparable to, and arguably topping, SNL’s output in the same period). And Stewart went deep into the bench, turning the (25-minute!) segment into a roll call of contributors and bits, a delightful little greatest-hits medley that managed to smash in a Corddry brothers meltdown, Trevor Noah taking measurements, a taped shout-out from previous host and good sport Craig Kilborn (“I hate to say it, Jon, but I knew you were gonna run this thing into the ground”), a montage of his favorite targets saying farewell (O’Reilly’s “Have fun feeding your rabbits, quitter” was probably the highlight there), an appearance by “Gitmo” (my favorite completely forgotten TDS recurring bit), an appropriately awkward interaction with Wyatt Cenac (“You good?” “Yeah, I’m good. You good?” “Yeah, I’m good”), and, this being The Daily Show, a reference to Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face.
Unsurprisingly, the last two former contributors — and most obvious heirs to the Stewart legacy — were the most affectionate. Stewart and John Oliver charmingly fell back into their most frequent activity: trying to crack each other up. Supernerd Stephen Colbert’s extended Lord of the Rings analogy was clever (he’s Sam to Jon’s Frodo, because “one of us is adult size and does not have hairy toes”). But it was in the button to the segment, which was presented as being off script and I’m inclined to believe was (“You can edit this out later”), where Colbert got serious, telling his former boss, “We owe you because we learned from you, we learned from you by example, how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect. You were infuriatingly good at our job…. On behalf of so many people whose lives you changed over the past 16 years, thank you.” It was warm and funny and (yes) sincere, moving the host to tears, its literal group hug the episode’s emotional high point.
But there was more: a heartfelt tribute to the behind-the-scenes staff via a replication of Goodfellas’ famous one-long-shot Copa sequence, continuing Stewart’s obsession with that particular film, complete with a green-room appearance by Martin Scorsese (“Jon, you’re rippin’ me off for the last time”); a big thanks to Comedy Central for “this opportunity”; and as “my moment of Zen,” an in-studio performance by his favorite artist and fellow Jersey native Bruce Springsteen, a mini-set that Stewart ended, overcome with emotion, with a simple, “Thank you, good night.”
He could do so; he’d said his piece a few minutes earlier (or, as a final hyperbolic Internet headline put it, delivered an “epic final rant”), with one more “Meet Me at Camera Three” for the road. Echoing the idiom at the center of perhaps his best Fox News dissection — no small statement, that — Stewart delivered a brief but effective monologue on the prevalence of (unbleeped) bullshit, which, he reminded us, “is everywhere.” With precision, he defined and described the three most common strains, from the innocuous to the insidiousness, and left us by handing off his mission: “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”
It was a short but impassioned bit of parting wisdom, and, at first glance, almost seemed an insignificant way of summarizing the tremendous achievement of this program. But the more I re-read and re-watch that segment, the clearer it becomes that this, ultimately, was The Daily Show’s ethos. The metamorphosis of TDS under Stewart’s hand, from a smirky, OJ-skewering Weekend Update expansion into the most trenchant, biting, and insightful source of current-events commentary in any medium, ended up boiling down to the rigor with which he hit his two most frequent targets: politics and media.
In doing so, as some publications (including this one) have pointed out, Stewart probably did end up preaching to the choir. Where this viewer parts company is in the supposition that his work somehow carried less value as a result of it, and I think that can be read as the subtext of those parting words — because there is always value in calling people and institutions on their bullshit, no matter if it’s you or I on our dumb blogs and our stupid Facebook feeds, or Jon Stewart on his basic cable news parody show. Stewart may not have created the proper dialogue, or healed a perhaps inextricably divided nation, or cured cancer. But every night, without fail, he called “bullshit,” and that’s what I’m gonna miss the most.