Jon Stewart didn’t use his final time on the landmark Comedy Central program to wallow in memories. There were no clips of past stunts, no skatey-eighth rerun of Stewart berating CNBC financial commentator James Cramer for the tone of that network’s coverage of the world of business. Instead, Stewart spent a good part of a 63-minute finale celebrating the comedians who contributed to the program over his 16 years at its helm and the writers and support staff behind the scenes.
In doing so, Stewart – who turned a light-hearted program ostensibly about delivering fake news into a very real, cultural touchstone for thousands of viewers four nights a week – flipped another format on its ear. TV’s biggest latenight finales have been about the hosts and their antics. David Letterman gave nods to Chris Elliott and Larry “Bud” Melman when he signed off from CBS’ “Late Show” in May, but a thank you to his staff came in the show’s closing moments, not in two mammoth segments that kicked things off. Jay Leno in his first “Tonight Show” goodbye featured the kids of his staffers who had been born during his time on the air, but it was part of his nearly-last hour’s denouement, not the main gist of the au revoir.
Stewart, on the other hand, put his contributors and cast front and center. A frenetic opening segment made use of dozens of “Daily Show” correspondents ranging from early Stewart sidemen like Mo Rocca and Vance DeGeneres to newer players like Jessica Williams and Al Madrigal. The show’s biggest success stories – Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore – made prominent appearances. Trevor Noah, who will succeed Stewart September 28, popped up on stage to measure the set – and Stewart’s, er, inseam. “Actually, hey, Trevor, could you give me, like, 20 more minutes?” Stewart asked him.
Politicians and targets of Stewart’s ire over the years also joined the spectacle in taped cameos. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly jokingly teased Stewart for being a “quitter.” “So long, jackass!” hooted Senator John McCain. Hillary Rodham Clinton lamented the “bummer” that Stewart was leaving just as she began to run for President. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Craig Kilborn, Stewart’s predecessor on the show, made brief appearances. Paul Brown, the chief executive of Arby’s, a frequent Stewart target, offered a new slogan for the comedian: “Jon Stewart: It’s like a TV threw up on your face.” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played “Land of Hope and Dreams” a selection the singer said was a “request” from the host.
I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of your ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there will be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Stewart appeared visibly stirred, if not shaken, during all the proceedings. He begged Colbert not to spend time praising him on camera. During the finale’s taping earlier this evening, Stewart hugged nearly every correspondent who came on the program, then turned to his desk and blew air from his mouth, obviously emotional. That last moment was not shown during Comedy Central’s broadcast.
He had reason to be overwhelmed. Under his aegis, “The Daily Show” became more than a spoof of TV news on Comedy Central. For a certain generation, it developed into a truth-seeking exercise as Stewart railed against monoliths like government and the media in hopes of reducing confusion and bureaucracy into simple truths. Not since Walter Cronkite has a generation put so much trust in a single on-air host – and this even when Stewart never professed to offer any information of value.
One might even liken Stewart to a sort of Mister Rogers for a swath of viewers growing up in an era when the flaws of institutions their parents believed in without question were more evident than ever. He chided CNN for presenting “partisan hackery” on a program called “Crossfire” he suggested was toxic to national discourse. He dressed down former New York Times reporter Judith Miller for allowing sources with bad information to help spur a nation to send U.S. troops to Iraq.
Little of that was celebrated Thursday evening. Stewart delivered a short monologue about being wary of “bull–t.” The world, he told viewers, is full of it, whether it be “Tolstoy’s iTunes agreement,” the Patriot Act, or the way cupcakes are made and marketed. “I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bulls–t is vigilance,” he cautioned. “So if you smell something, say something.”
Stewart’s farewell is the fifth in TV’s latenight firmament over the last year. Chelsea Handler left E! last summer, and Craig Ferguson left CBS’ “The Late Late Show” and Stephen Colbert left Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” last December. Letterman’s departure seems fresh, mainly because Colbert will not succeed him on CBS until September and the network has used the “Late Show” timeslot to show repeats of “The Mentalist” and “Blue Bloods.”
Stewart’s “Daily Show” finale may be one of the final moves on TV’s wee-hours chessboard, meaning that upheaval in what has been an area where hosts stay on for decades may be ready to settle down once again, albeit with a greater array of players in place. Conan O’Brien, who has hosted latenight programs since 1993, is arguably the genre’s elder statesman.
Stewart seemed not to care for any of it – the timeslot, the TV industry or his place in any of it. The most ornate segment of the night was a single-take shot of the “Daily Show” staff in the office, during which Stewart aped a scene from Martin Scorsese ‘s 1990 film “Goodfellas,” introducing his co-workers in rapid-fire style, each getting a nickname and a second for a quick word.
Scorsese showed up in the middle to protest Stewart’s homage.”Hey, Jon, you ripped me off for the last time on ‘Goodfellas,’ OK? You’ll hear from my lawyers soon.” Stewart professed not to know what the director was talking about.
“There are days where you come in and the confusion and the fog is everywhere, and the people here never fail to have my back on those moments. Somebody in the building bringing inspiration – ideas, tenacity, hard work – it’s the thing I’m proudest of, of this place. It’s not the show. It’s the process of the show. It’s the people of the show and the atmosphere,” Stewart said, adding: “This is the most beautiful place I have been and I’ll never have that again, and I had to come to terms with that before leaving.”
In his final moments, Stewart told the audience that the show wasn’t ending but that the exchange he has had with them for 16 years was due for a small break. “We are merely taking a small pause in the conversation,” he said, “a conversation, which, by the way, I have hogged, and I apologize for that.”