Of all the ways that I’ll miss The Daily Show host Jon Stewart—as comedian, truth teller, BS caller—above all I will miss him as a media filter. I don’t mean “media filter” in the usual sense of someone who takes in a great deal of news, scans over it and highlights those bits most worthy of your attention. I mean a filter like you find in a pool or a sewage-treatment plant, or your bloodstream: something that absorbs a torrent filled with toxins—in this case, politics, punditry and sensationalism—and passes it through in a form that you can safely tolerate.
In the body of American civil discourse, Jon Stewart was our liver.
And 16 years was a pretty good run for a liver, considering how many shots of high-proof bad faith and doublespeak our culture knocks back on a daily basis. Granted, this was a burden Stewart chose for himself. The Daily Show he inherited from Craig Kilborn was more innocuous, a product of the it’s-all-good ’90s, less a commentary on the news than a parody of the phoniness of news shows. Stewart, with his team of writers and producers, discovered that they could use the show to pick apart not just the format of the news but its content and the way it was presented.
Stewart debuted in January 1999, the year that the online self—publishing platform Blogger would debut, and his Daily Show was a kind of blog of the cableverse: it fed off primary sources but added value, not just by lampooning the soapboxing of public figures but by diagramming the construction of the soapbox. The prototypical, heavily researched Daily Show takedown—say, a montage showing how Fox News’ conservative pundits fed off controversies fanned by the channel’s own news shows—was essentially a high-production version of “fisking,” the blogosphere practice of dismantling a mainstream-media narrative point by point.
The common narrative holds that Stewart’s Daily Show hit another level and got seriously funny (or hilariously serious) after 9/11. Certainly Stewart had one of the most memorable responses. He preemptively mocked his own response: “It’s another entertainment show beginning with the overwrought speech of a shaken host.” He tweaked and echoed the sense of shock and siege: “There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying.” Then he shared a nugget of hope: the view from his apartment had been the World Trade Center, but now it was the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t beat that,” he said.
But the events that truly defined Stewart’s era may have come both before and after 9/11. First, there was the Bush v. Gore debacle of 2000 (the show covered it with the rubric “Courting Disaster”), which turned an agreed-on given of democracy—who is the rightfully elected President?—into a source of endless recrimination and fuel for the argument engine of cable news. And after 9/11 came the invasion of Iraq—“Mess O’Potamia,” as the show branded it—in which Stewart and his writers found their acerbic voice, puncturing the certitude of media hawks and playing syncopated counterpoint to the drums of war.
Maybe you didn’t have to be a liberal to like Stewart, but it became plain enough he was one, well before it emerged that he had been called to the White House for tête-à-têtes with President Obama. (Stewart, of course, mocked the breathless Politico report of the “secret,” yet publicly logged, meetings under the rubric “When Barry Met Silly.”) But Stewart’s real driving ideology was reasonableness, the idea that not every disagreement had to be Armageddon. His approach to the media was not so much to kill the messenger as to tell the messenger: You’re killing us. “Stop hurting America,” he begged the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire in a legendary 2004 appearance.
Stewart did care about things, passionately and profanely, whether it was shaming Congress into passing a bill to aid 9/11 first responders or telling Fox News, “Go f-ck yourself,” with the help of a gospel choir. But by nature he was a wincer, not a shouter. In 2010, with protégé Stephen Colbert, he held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in D.C., a demonstration devoted to the idea that reasonable people could disagree.
Guess what? People disagreed—including progressives like Rachel Maddow, who accused Stewart of promoting “false equivalence” between left and right media. There were always those who wanted Stewart to be angrier. (His anger, reportedly, could come out behind the scenes. Wyatt Cenac, once one of The Daily Show’s only black writers and correspondents, contended in a podcast interview that Stewart blew up at him in a meeting after Cenac complained that Stewart’s imitation of Republican candidate Herman Cain reminded him of the racist caricature Kingfish from Amos ’n’ Andy.)
There are no term limits on voices of reason, but with another presidency ending—and Colbert retiring his eagle and decamping to CBS—it feels time. The Daily Show’s political-comedy successors will owe a lot to Stewart, not least because so many of them worked on his show. But the cultural momentum is with the likes of former understudy John Oliver, whose polymath essay-rants on HBO’s Last Week Tonight take sides fervently and often end with calls to action, not moments of Zen. Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, is known for lacerating stand-up on racism and has already promised a show that will respond less to cable news than the immense, endless outrage cycle online.
Stewart’s time as filter is ending, but the torrent spews on. As if in a cruel taunt, God and Fox News scheduled the first Republican debate—likely to feature Donald Trump—the same night he leaves the air. And his heirs will serve an audience who want video clips of their hosts “destroying” and “eviscerating” their targets more than wry appeals to comity. That was Zen; this is now.