It was Jon Stewart’s goodbye party. But he was the one who came with presents for everyone.
Talk-show hosts’ finales often end with a tribute line, as guests, friends and regulars streaming in to pay respects and offer thanks. It’s not an act of vanity or selfishness necessarily; it’s a way of giving the audience surrogates through whom to say “so long” and “all the best.” And sure, Jon Stewart’s last weeks on The Daily Show involved plenty of familiar faces coming by to salute.
But for most of Stewart’s final hour or so (Comedy Central extended his sendoff, and then let it run longer), he turned the camera on everyone else. The first extended bit was a celebration of the vast army of contributors that had come through the show, beginning with the current crew, and going back through the show’s history: Hodgman and Black; Schall, Bee and Carell; Munn, Riggle and Helms; and more and more (and Wilmore). The segment closed with a video wall of the cast, conveying just how vast the show’s reach has been, not just in late-night comedy but sitcoms, movies and ideas in general.
After a break, Stewart returned with another bravura thank you: an extended, Goodfellas-style tracking shot through The Daily Show offices. Viewers, even critics who should know better, tend to think about such series as the work of the star as a single author. But, of course, they’re not; The Daily Show has developed a sharp writers’ voice independent of, while guided by, Stewart, and it takes an army to fake the news nightly: makeup folks and prop masters, accountants and researchers (including the media watchers, shown with blood coming out of their eyes), camera crew and costumers.
Stewart got out of it without being thanked himself — almost. At the end of the correspondents’ segment, his greatest disciple, Stephen Colbert, took a seat at the desk to go off-prompter, likening him, in Colbertian high-nerd fashion, to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who bore the Ring of media criticism and satire for us all these years. “You said to me and to many other people here many years ago never to thank you because we owe you nothing,” Colbert said, chasing a sheepish Stewart around his desk in their rolling chairs. “And it is one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong.”
After all that, Stewart had a one more parting thank you gift for the audience, a last speech to camera 3 — on “bullshit.” “Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with bullshit.” The kind that makes bad things sound good. The kind that hides bad things under a pile of verbiage. And the kind that rationalizes complacency by sowing doubt. The good news, he said, is that “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance,” and it’s getting easier to spot because liars are getting lazy.
That’s modest of him — but if we’re following his example, we must call b.s. on him a little here too. If it’s gotten easier to spot, it’s partly because of him: because Stewart, over 16 years, has sat down with us and gradually gone over the instructions to build our own detectors. I wrote, as many other have, that Stewart changed TV political comedy by creating and paving the way for many successors. But he’s also made a difference by showing folks how b.s. works — in politics, in the media — empowering them to spot it themselves.
Stewart is leaving the show, but he deputized his audience to replace him, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer opening the books for an army of slayers to replace her — or, to steal Colbert’s LOTR reference, like Galadriel, who gave each of the Fellowship a gift to use to carry on the fight and keep hope alive.
Then Stewart signed off — “Here it is, my moment of Zen” — and turned over the stage to Bruce Springsteen, fellow New Jersey balladeer of skepticism and hope, to play him off. This, at last, was just a little treat for Jersey boy Stewart, a little gift for himself. He earned it.