Genuine warmth is an extraordinarily rare commodity on television, which is why Jon Stewart’s final “The Daily Show” was something to be treasured, savored and maybe even played back a few times. As with most media-hyped events, Stewart’s exit came with such inflated expectations that it’s the sort of thing the host himself would have delighted in skewering. Yet the parade of former correspondents who lined up to bid him farewell not only celebrated what he called “the talent that has passed through these doors” but the guy who gave them that opportunity as he rides into the sunset.
Stewart opened by pretending to cover the Republican debate (which actually took place after his taping), which turned into an extended series of cameos by practically everyone who has worked for the show on camera. The producers even squeezed in testimonials from other luminaries, from Craig Kilborn – from whom Stewart inherited the franchise – to Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Bill O’Reilly.
Still, the real emotional gut punch fell, appropriately, to Stephen Colbert, who forced Stewart – who has resisted attempts to lionize him building up to the finish – to listen to a testimonial on behalf of all those who had worked for him. “You were infuriatingly good at your job,” Colbert said, and if Stewart was acting when he began to choke up, then he has a career in movies ahead of him that has nothing to do with directing.
Frankly, that would have been enough to make the hour wonderfully memorable. But the show followed that up with an extremely clever “Goodfellas” spoof, introducing everyone who had worked on the show in one extended tracking shot (and throwing in a Martin Scorsese cameo for good measure). It’s become standard operating procedure for latenight hosts to acknowledge their staffs, but this effort brought more flair to the process than most.
In the night’s ultimate highlight, Stewart then channeled the late George Carlin, and perhaps a bit of David Steinberg, in offering what amounted to parting words of advice to his audience, an extended rumination on the “bull—t” that permeates our politics, and the one word that can inoculate the public against it: vigilance. In a strange, sweet way, it felt almost like an older relative addressing a kid, telling him or her what to look out for when he’s no longer around to run interference.
Each of these segments, and especially that last one, showcased what Stewart has uniquely brought to “The Daily Show.” In an age of news coverage where partisanship often demands getting both sides of even the most absurd argument, he astutely knifed through the clutter, in a way that frequently spoke to people who had the same thoughts but didn’t hear them articulated much – or nearly as well – in other venues.
Stewart has always brought a self-effacing quality to the desk, which is part of his comedic persona. But his goodbye, in which he described his time hosting the show as a “privilege,” sounded heartfelt and sincere. The biggest non-surprise, frankly, was that he would turn the final minutes over to Bruce Springsteen, a natural sendoff for a native son of New Jersey.
Despite all the inevitable analysis regarding Stewart’s legacy, the sun will still rise Friday. But come Monday – when Stewart would have had an opportunity to weigh in on that aforementioned Republican presidential debate – Thursday’s finale merely reinforced the sense that there’s going to be a void in a lot of people’s lives more significant than just that extra half-hour four nights a week. And Trevor Noah – who came out to measure Stewart’s desk – certainly has his work cut out for him.