Why Jon Stewart Might Be Irreplaceable

Director J.J. Abrams told Jon Stewart that the void left by his exit from “The Daily Show” would be “seismic and massive.” In his own retirement interview, legendary latenight producer Peter Lassally – a veteran of “The Tonight Show” and “Late Late Show” – said before Trevor Noah was tapped that in terms of replacing Stewart, “Whatever they’re going to do, I don’t see it working.”

Stewart has sought to downplay the significance of his departure. Yet in considering the place he has come to occupy at the nexus of pop culture, politics and satire – not to mention media literacy – it’s fair to ask: Is Jon Stewart, as cast in his “Daily Show” role, irreplaceable?

Lassally certainly thinks so, and elaborated (in an unused portion of that earlier piece) about how Stewart’s mix of intelligence, quickness and comedic timing couldn’t be readily replicated. And while the format will remain largely the same – and indeed, has already been cloned, essentially, by former correspondent John Oliver’s weekly HBO show – it’s a persuasive argument, to the extent that Stewart arrived at a particularly seminal moment for such criticism, in a vehicle that perfectly meshed with his talents.

So even with the latenight audience having splintered into smaller pieces, Stewart’s footprint was sizable – rippling through the media, with his critiques of certain figures and coverage receiving next-day pickup that multiplied his reach and influence. In that regard, the comic’s decision to move on might be more impactful than any since Lassally’s former boss, Johnny Carson, hung up his spurs in 1992, despite the fact Stewart attracts a smaller audience than David Letterman or Jay Leno.

That’s in part because Letterman hung around past the point of appearing wholly engaged in the enterprise, while Leno’s tenure was interrupted by the fickle nature of his bosses at NBC, who hastened his exit to make way for Conan O’Brien, panicked about losing him to a rival, moved him to primetime and eventually reinstated him.

Stewart’s arrival at Comedy Central in 1999 happened to coincide with the ascent of Fox News – which launched, along with MSNBC, three years earlier. It also preceded by only a few years the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which, followed by the war in Iraq, triggered torrents of partisan coverage that seemed to grow more hyperbolic and heated by the hour, heightened by the business pressures of the digital age and the election of Barack Obama.

All of that cried out for a sober voice to second-guess, dissect and, foremost, poke fun at it. In hindsight, it was a confluence of events that perfectly meshed with Stewart’s sensibilities, as the media became sillier while the voices of third parties, including comedians, sounded more sober. Hence New York Times columnist Frank Bruni could dub Stewart “in some odd sense the Walter Cronkite of the last decade” without being laughed out of the punditocracy.

Many conservatives, of course, dislike Stewart intensely because they see him as a partisan, and he obviously doesn’t lean in their ideological direction. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting some of his most acerbic material has been reserved for CNN – a network that he perceives, unlike Fox, as falling well short of its charter – and CNBC. Indeed, there might be no more memorable takedown in Stewart’s “Daily Show” career than his 2009 skewering of financial bloviator Jim Cramer after he yelled to the heavens that Bear Stearns was in no danger, right before the company’s stock price imploded.

Yes, “The Daily Show’s” clip-collecting apparatus is an enormous asset, and Noah surely represents a way to try to build a bridge to the younger demographic that Comedy Central covets. That said, Stewart’s skills are so rare that if the network had even an inkling its flagship host was “restless,” as he later conceded, it makes the oversight in locking up Oliver after his guest-hosting stint while Stewart directed a movie even more egregious.

Although there’s much speculation about what Stewart will do next, it’s doubtful any subsequent gig will have commensurate power, which is, of course, perfectly fine. Only in latenight comedy and at “60 Minutes” are TV jobs perceived to be lifetime appointments, like Supreme Court justices.

When Carson announced his retirement in 1991, Bob Hope was quoted as saying that it was “sort of like a head falling off Mt. Rushmore.” Stewart’s leave-taking doesn’t rise to that level, but as latenight-TV monuments go, odds are they’re not going to be building many more that will rival this one.

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