Early in his 16-year run as America’s only acknowledged fake news anchor, Jon Stewart expressed appreciation for being able to “sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks.” It would soon become clear he was no ordinary class cutup — or late-night television host.
Love him or hate him, Stewart leaves Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on Thursday as one of the most gifted political satirists the nation has seen in generations. He has been an influential, if unlikely, voice in the nation’s dialogue and a primary source of news and commentary for millions, including a generation of younger viewers who might otherwise have tuned out politics.
Stewart took over the show in 1999 and struck a chord with coverage of a presidential campaign that he and his team of correspondents — including future comic stars Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert — all-too-accurately called “Indecision 2000.” It was during the leadup to the Bush-Gore stalemate, Stewart would later say that he realized the conventional media didn’t take its job seriously enough, leaving room for serious people doing “unserious” things to fill the void.
The unserious approach clicked. His ratings never surpassed those of other late-night shows, but that is a tough measure in the age of the Internet. “The Daily Show” became pioneering online viral videos.
He drew a loyal following of viewers hungry for political commentary deeper than one-liners and lighter than the nation’s op-ed pages. They also appeared to value someone willing to take on prevailing views. Stewart’s audience grew as he critiqued the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East in segments dubbed “Mess O’Potamia.”
Over the years, Stewart and his writing staff would serve as a national memory, readily bringing up damning video clips of political leaders contradicting themselves and spinning like weathervanes. It was a brutally effective technique, using humor to shed light on dishonesty that other media — easily distracted by shiny objects — failed to catch.
Unlike much of late-night TV, Stewart’s humor was pointed and often left a mark. He skewered the hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire” for their destructive shoutfests — so thoroughly, in fact, that he’s often credited with its cancellation. He shed a light on CNBC financial expert Jim Cramer’s less-than-expert stock advice and once-popular Fox News host Glenn Beck’s byzantine conspiracies.
Conservatives were frequent targets, but Stewart wasn’t averse to blasting Democrats as inept or to battering the Obama administration for its failures to fulfill obligations to veterans. He also showed little patience for the strident left, once observing a Moveon.org anniversary as “ten years of making even people who agree with you cringe.”
Stewart’s version of current events may not have been comprehensive or objective, but — like Mark Twain, Will Rogers and other social critics before him — he has served the public good. He deftly used humor to coax his viewers to take a greater interest in their nation’s leadership.
Stewart, occasionally cited in polls as one of America’s most trusted “newsmen,” is self-effacing about his role. “There’s been a form of me around forever,” he says of his satire.
Here’s hoping the wisecracks from the back of the country are as funny — and insightful — in the years ahead.