"Did I die?" Jon Stewart asked the night after he made the announcement that he would be leaving The Daily Show. Stewart was commenting on the outpouring of eulogistic praise he attracted online the instant his Daily Show departure was disclosed. In a way, Stewart was right — as far as TV is concerned, he has passed away. In giving up the Daily Show throne (an apt image for Stewart's kingly status in media criticism, though antithetical to his cultivated image as a just-a-guy host), he's abdicating his status as America's most influential liberal commentator.
Stewart had, by his own admission, become a bit restless, distracted by other ideas, such as his move into film producing and directing. But more broadly, the longer The Daily Show remained under Stewart's helm, the less stinging his critiques of the powerful had become.
This wasn't entirely due to the host himself (although his increasingly embarrassing public buddy-ship with Bill O'Reilly is Exhibit 1-A in any possible power-corrupts argument one might want to build). No, it's more because of the nature of TV success: A hit television show inevitably becomes, over time, more comfy, both to viewers and to guests. Thus, as The New York Times noted earlier this week, politicians who had been treated to some of Stewart's most withering mockery now freely admit they're going to miss him when he's gone.
Why? Because even Stewart's most harshly-criticized targets — the more extreme Republicans and virtually all of the mainstream news media — came to understand that if you were willing to take a few Stewart slaps, you reaped big rewards: exposure to The Daily Show's huge young demographic; the chance to prove you're a good sport (image enhancement); and, if you were lucky, the rueful respect of the host himself, who ultimately is too much of a sunny humanist to nurse a good, sustained grudge against any well-behaved man or woman who'd pay a visit to his set.
Simply because it had been around so long, Stewart's version of The Daily Show went from being a charged arena for debate to a place where, while pokes were taken at political stupidity and mendacity, any target of attack was welcome to come on and joke around with Jon.
This was always the chink in Stewart's commentator armor: He shares with his subjects (political and media brokers) an inherent gravitation toward power — consolidating his own as the king of The Daily Show, and deferring to the power of others, whether it was Henry Kissinger or Mitch McConnell. I was particularly dismayed that Stewart began doing a Cecil the Turtle voice for that latter, particularly cynical, politician — I love Cecil Turtle.
For sure, Comedy Central will feel the hurt of Stewart's absence. While Stewart is always careful to credit his fleet of writers for making The Daily Show as meaty as it can be, it's the star who provides the guiding sensibility. With the exceptions of Stewart's own grad students — eager teaching-assistant John Oliver and sage professor Larry Wilmore — there's no one out there right now who knows how to make pointed political jokes while also providing the wackiness necessary as a release-valve, lest a political show become too much of a pressure-cooker. With Stephen Colbert having dropped his mask, political TV humor will be in a parlous state once Stewart exits.
I mean, look at what's left: Real Time With Bill Maher, that ongoing spectacle of a host laying down the crypto-libertarian law while failing to make jokes sharp enough to puncture his gassy balloon of self-regard. Bill O'Reilly himself is funnier.
Who'll replace Jon Stewart? Someone. No one.