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Jon Stewart, the Fake Newsman Who Made a Real Difference

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

If you want a sense of how much Jon Stewart mattered to today’s mediasphere, how deeply his audience identified with him, consider this. We are currently in the midst of an actual evening-news controversy that just knocked Brian Williams out of the NBC Nightly News anchor chair for six months. But when Jon Stewart announced out of the blue that he was leaving The Daily Show later this year—explanation, as we say in the news biz, TK—that felt like the only news that mattered.

Stewart, whose last show is Thursday, can demur as much as he wants that he’s just a fake news guy, a comedian telling jokes, that the credit and attention should go to actual journalists reporting actual news. But we all saw through that joke. Since taking over the show from Craig Kilborn, he became–whether he liked it or not, whether he found it sad or not–the most passionately followed voice in late-night comedy and news alike.

So Stewart wasn’t an actual news anchor. What his show did with comedy was a kind of journalism nonetheless, using satire and some thorough research of source material to analyze the news and analyze its analysis. Any honest media critic knew that Stewart was doing the job better than the rest of us. His show turned TV’s own tools and language against it to spotlight buffoonery, bad faith, hot air, and hypocrisy. Do the same thing in print and you’re an op-ed columnist. Stewart and company simply managed to do it in a format that people paid attention to.

See Jon Stewart's Most Memorable Guests On The Daily Show

Kurt Vonnegut appeared on the show in 2005, one of his last public appearances. Comedy Central
Denis Leary and Jon Stewart have long been friends, so every time the actor appeared on the show, the two comedians would opt to make fun of one another rather than conduct an interview, leaving the audience in stitchesComedy Central
After releasing Hugo in 2011, Martin Scorsese visited the show Comedy Central
Last year, Christopher Walken talked tap dancing on the showComedy Central
Barack Obama appeared on the show in 2005 as a senator, twice in 2008 as a presidential candidate, again in 2010 during his fist term, and finally in 2012 as he ran for a second termComedy Central
First Lady Michelle Obama has appeared twice on the Daily Show, once in 2008 and twice in 2012Comedy Central
During one of Paul Rudd's may appearances on the show, Stewart revealed that the comedian was his first test guest after her took over for Craig KilbornComedy Central
Rachel Maddow was a repeat guest on the show where she described Justice Scalia as a "troll," said she could kill Bin Laden with a spoon and declared she was "embarrassed" by BushComedy Central

And pay attention they did. Stewart came out on top of a 2009 TIME online poll asking who was the most trusted newscaster in America after the death of Walter Cronkite, and young viewers in particular cited The Daily Show as a top source of information.

Stewart laughed off these accolades too, but he repaid the affection by caring. In his famous 2004 Crossfire appearance, he begged the hosts of the CNN shout show to stop “hurting America”; it is only a fitting sendoff to Stewart that before he left, he got to see that show die not once but twice. His 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity was dismissed by some critics, especially on the left, as mushy “false equivalence,” but it was deeply passionate–albeit passionate about Stewart’s belief, usually frustrated by actual events, that you could apeal to people’s reason and sense of comity. And sometimes the show effected real change, as when he made a cause celebre of a health bill to support 9/11 first responders, after it had been stymied in Congress. Stewart wasn’t a fist-shaker, but an eye-roller, but when he winced, he winced with feeling.

There was speculation on and off that Stewart would move on to something else–indeed that he should move on to something else, because that’s what people do in careers, even though he had seemed to find his perfect calling. He was suggested as a network late night host, directed the movie Rosewater, and last year he was courted by NBC’s Meet the Press, in a move even he seemed to find laughable at the time. (Given the turmoil over at NBC right now, let me just stress: please be a joke, please be a joke, please be a joke.)

So now it seems he will be going on to something else. But what the hell do the rest of us do? If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that we saw Stewart hand off his show for a summer to John Oliver, who kept it running brilliantly. Yes, Oliver’s an extraordinary talent, but his run on the show was also testament to how well Stewart and his staff had created a show whose voice was greater even than one ridiculously talented person. There are plenty of talented people we can talk about as a replacement later–Sam Bee, Aasif Maandvi–but at some point the idea of replacing Stewart will seem plausible, thanks to the machine he created.

Indeed, much of Stewart’s legacy extends well beyond his show: Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report and soon CBS’s Late Show, John Oliver of HBO, Larry Wilmore of the promising Nightly Show — not to mention the other talents, like Steve Carell, that the Daily Show helped launch. He’s arguably the most influential man in late-night comedy now. And his last show, whatever he does next, will be a sad day for anyone who cares about the news. That’s the truth, fake or not.

See Jon Stewart's Career Over the Years

THE DAILY SHOW, 1996-present, Jon Stewart 1999-present
Jon Stewart takes the reins as anchor of The Daily Show in 1999.Comedy Central/Everett
Stewart gets a cameo as Kevin Gerrity in the 1999 Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy.Columbia
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 9
Jay Leno interviews Jon Stewart on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 2000.NBC/Getty Images
Stewart plays Marion Frank Stokes in the 2002 black comedy Death to SmoochyWarner Bros.
55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room
Jon Stewart and his team win the first of many Emmys for The Daily Show in 2003.Chris Weeks—FilmMagic/Getty Images
The 78th Annual Academy Awards - Jon Stewart Portraits
Jon Stewart hosts the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.Academy of Motion Picture Arts—WireImage/Getty Images
Stewart has a cameo as himself on The Simpsons in 2008 in the episode "E Pluribus Wiggum."Fox
Jon Stewart And Stephen Colbert Hold Rally On National Mall
Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart host the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall on Oct. 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (L) tapes an i
Jon Stewart interviews President Barack Obama on The Daily Show at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, Oct. 26, 2010.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
51st USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner - Inside
Jon Stewart speaks at the 51st USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner on Dec. 13, 2012 in New York City.Michael Loccisano—Getty Images
ROSEWATER, front, from left: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, on set, 2014. ©Open Road
Stewart makes his directorial debut in the 2014 drama Rosewater.Open Road Films
Jon Stewart announces his retirement for the end of 2015.Comedy Central

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