A comedic icon signs off

Jon Stewart was many things to many people: A self-hating Jew to those who loathed him, a well of knowledge to those who revered him, but too all he was a seminal figure in the political sphere.

Jon Stewart (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jon Stewart
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Jon Stewart’s last taping of The Daily Show, which aired in the US Thursday night on Comedy Central, a cavalcade of former correspondents said their goodbyes and thank-yous to the departing host. Those personalities included Academy Award and Grammy nominees, Emmy and Peabody Award winners and even the voice of Olaf, the iconic snowman sidekick of Disney’s megahit Frozen.
Watching the likes of Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Lewis Black and John Oliver (to name only a few) pay their respects to the man responsible for their careers makes something abundantly clear about Stewart: He didn’t merely host a talk show, he created an institution.
“You said to us over the years never to thank you, because we owe you nothing,” Colbert, who will be taking over for David Letterman on CBS’s Late Show next month, said.
“That’s one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong. We owe you – and not just what you did for our careers by employing us to come on this tremendous show that you made, we owe you because we learned from you. You are infuriatingly good at your job! All of us who got to work with you over the course of 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours, and we’re better people for having known you. On behalf of the lives of all the people you’ve changed for the past 16 years – thank you.”
While practically everything about television has changed since Stewart took charge in 1999 – back when the big four American networks still reigned supreme, the reality TV phenomenon had yet to take over the zeitgeist and Facebook wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye – Stewart’s influence on how Americans talk about politics has been a constant.
Stewart, though, has spent the past 16 years deflecting adoration and especially the responsibility that came with his influence.
He has denied he is the moral arbiter of the news, but over the years, that is exactly what he had become, especially in the eyes of young left-leaning Americans.
Lena Dunham, who is perhaps the epitome of a Daily Show fan, said of Stewart, “Long before I was a person who would ever be on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was where I got my news. Watching Jon – an avowed defender of civil rights, women’s rights, all the democratic beliefs that I hold dear, really – who still knew it was his job to dress everyone down when they deserved it, kept me amused, inspired and most importantly aware in a time when picking up the newspaper was just not gonna happen,” she told The New York Times.
Director Judd Apatow, in a new book, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, where he interviews a slew of famous comedians, wrote of Stewart, “There are certain people I’ve known for a long time that I feel an odd sense of pride in knowing, because I simply can’t believe how brilliant their work is and what they’ve accomplished. It shocks me that I used to sit in the back of clubs with these people, and they went on to speak to presidents and influence people in such a profound way. Jon is one of those people. He makes me proud to be in the world of comedy.”
On his final episode a slew of politicians – all of whom were the butt of Daily Show jokes many times over – gave their own good-natured send-offs.
Secretary of State John Kerry quipped, “There are lot of things in the world that keep me up at night, which is why I relied on you to put me to sleep.”
“So long, jackass,” Sen. John McCain said wryly.
Not everyone was a fan, of course.
An opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday called Stewart the “patron saint of liberal smugness,” and Fox news executives must have raised a glass in celebration when he signed off.
But when Stewart talked Israel, that’s when his critics were the most vociferous. His critique of IDF actions during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, his skewering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress last March, prompted many to ask, “Is Jon Stewart the most famous self-hating Jew in America?” Stewart, for his part, has repeatedly denied the characterization.
“Look, there’s a lot of reasons why I hate myself – being Jewish isn’t one of them,” Stewart told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you’re pro-terrorist, it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel.”
Stewart spent much of his time on the air embracing his Jewish heritage.
“You took one day’s worth of shtick and kept it going for 16 years. Mazel Tov!” Sen.
Chuck Schumer joked when he made a surprise appearance on the show last July. Schumer then introduced “Let His People Laugh,” a two-minute clip chock full of Stewart’s penchant for dropping Jewy/Yiddish lingo and proof that, if anything, Stewart is proud to be a member of The Tribe.
While his legacy certainly consists of disparaging those in power, he should also be credited with inserting words like schmutz, punim and puppik into the mainstream American lexicon.
“I want to thank my wife, Tracy, and my kids Nate and Maggie for teaching me what joy looks like,” an emotional Stewart said as part of his final words on the show.
“An artist I really admire said he thinks of his career as a long conversation with the audience – a dialogue. I really like that metaphor. Because it takes away the idea of finality.
Nothing ends, it’s just a continuation.
It’s a pause in the conversation. So, rather than say ‘goodbye’ or ‘goodnight,’ I’m just going to say, ‘I’m just going to get a drink.’” So while Jon gets that drink – and South African Trevor Noah takes the reins – we will wait to see what horizon Stewart tackles next to resume that conversation, which will always be controversial, but never boring.