Jon Stewart made his announcement a few days ago, and it’s one that has filled both me and others with a great deal of sadness. I first started watching The Daily Show in college, during the 2000 presidential elections. I was a politics junkie and had been flipping back and forth between the various news stations the night of the presidential election, went to bed thinking one guy was president, waking up and finding out no one actually knew. That night, the day after the election, was the first time I watched The Daily Show, and it hooked me instantly. I watched it religiously over the next few months, as it seemed the only place that was actually doing the job of being journalists even while the political event of the decade was going down.
And then 9/11 happened and he became our Edward Murrow. He became the man who night after night came out and shone a light on hypocrisy, and asked hard questions of power that almost anyone else with a camera pointed at them pretended didn’t exist at all. The fact that the questions were wrapped in jokes made them no less serious, only less somber.
Jon Stewart became the best journalist of this generation, because he never gave a single goddamn about being a good journalist. By being outside the journalistic power structure, he was immune to all its flaws of being in bed with the very power it’s meant to challenge. He never cared about pissing someone off so that his credentials would be yanked, he never cared about not playing nice and being tossed off of a candidate’s press tour. He was the one sitting in the back and throwing spitballs, to use his own turn of phrase, but that’s a self-deprecating trivialization of what he did.
Without bombastic speeches, without somber revelation, he set out to make us laugh at the hypocrisy of power. And bit by bit, he grew and took a great weight on his shoulders as he became the avatar of a certain human truth: power cannot laugh at itself and so the greatest defense against it is humor. There is no authoritarian humor: it is a weapon of the weak and the powerless. And Jon Stewart, night after night, went out there and slung those stones at power.
Over the last few years, there was the slightest gradual change as the years weighed down the man. I don’t mean to suggest he lost some spirit, or that the jokes became less funny, but there was more and more a hint of the sad clown as the years went on. A feeling not just that the same jokes could be made year after year, but that he (and his partner in crime Colbert) were the only ones of significance making them anyway. Politics got even stupider, and if anything, news in general became even more impotent in the face of power.
The aging champion still stood against the hordes, but I don’t think that’s what wore him out in the end. I think it’s the fact that he still stood alone.
And I think that’s the saddest thing about his departure, the simple fact that it does leave a hole. In a world where things are running right, there should be a dozen of him on the air. When people like Brokaw or Murrow leave the air, there’s certainly a sadness, an ending of an era, but there’s also a sense of continuity. There were other networks, other anchors.
There is only one Jon Stewart, and that is the tragedy of our republic.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.