Monday night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was pissed. While he expressed disappointment in NBC News’s Brian Williams for possibly trying to ride so fine a line between newsperson and celebrity that he felt the need to exaggerate his own role in the Iraq war, he saved his real venom for the press Williams works for. As he’s done so often for so long, Stewart called out what he saw as infuriating hypocrisy, in this case the hypocrisy of the same media outlets that never bothered to question the lies that actually led us into war in Iraq now piling on one journalist’s tall tale about covering the fighting there. “Finally! Someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War!” he said. “Never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual fucking war.” As usual, Stewart camouflaged his righteous indignation behind a facade of comedy, but there was nothing funny about the truth he spoke and you could tell he knew that.
In fact, if you’ve paid attention over the past few years, you’ve noticed that, more and more, Stewart’s genuine frustration has been a regular feature of The Daily Show. And brilliantly funny guy or not, you can’t blame him for that. He’s lived and breathed the relentless insanity of American politics and media for 16 years, an insanity which seems to have only grown more virulent and dangerous during the Obama era. While I’m sure he understands that the gig he’s had for so long was never the kind of thing he could do forever — he’s 52 now — I’m willing to bet that he’s probably, in some ways, burned out. Stewart’s style of humor has never been indifferent or condescending; he’s someone who’s tried to make us laugh so we didn’t cry and someone who wanted to pass along really lousy news in a way that would make it feel a little less lousy. But that’s the thing: It only felt less lousy. And again, Stewart almost certainly knew this.
“I’m at my lowest point when I feel like there’s a problem I can’t solve,” Stewart said in a recent interview with HuffPost Live. At the time, he was discussing the possibility of one day leaving The Daily Show and he made it clear that when he felt like he’d taken the show as far as he could, he’d step down. But if you listen closely, there was more to it than that. Stewart seemed to be saying that when he himself had reached a point where he could no longer be an effective host and would therefore be a detriment to Daily‘s success and growth going forward, he’d know what he had to do. The fact is, what made Stewart so successful on The Daily Show is what was always going to give him a limited shelf-life: his heart. Jon Stewart sincerely cares, which is why it would eventually be impossible for him to come in every day bright-eyed and raring to find humor in the increasingly stupid, shameful Thunderdome of American political culture. While he’s a genius comic, he can’t solve this problem, no matter how often he calls it out or tries to alleviate it with laughter. In fact, in a recent conversation with Vulture‘s Chris Smith, he all but admitted it. “He drives me crazy, although he’s fun to mimic,” Stewart said about one of his favorite targets, Mitch McConnell. “But they all do. I’ve been doing this too long. Honestly, it’s breaking me. I’m broken.”
In the 16 years since Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, ratings have gone up by 400%. It’s received 50 Emmy nominations and it’s won 15 of them. The show has been awarded two Peabodys, for Christ’s sake. More than all of that, with Stewart at the helm, The Daily Show changed our cultural and media landscape; it’s become essential viewing, a fake news program more respected than the real news programs it parodies. But Stewart’s run on the show couldn’t last forever, particularly not since it required so much more from him than simply being a host. Stewart had a responsibility in taking the reins of The Daily Show. And even though he pretended to just be a guy making jokes, there’s no way he didn’t know this. There’s no way he didn’t get that what The Daily Show requires isn’t just somebody whom the audience believes in but somebody who believes that he or she can wade every day through all that stupidity and hypocrisy and still crack a smile. Stewart may very well have figured that he just couldn’t do it anymore — not effectively anyway, not without letting us see through the act.
Jon Stewart’s an immensely talented guy and someone smart people in this country owe a serious debt of gratitude to. Yeah, he’s stepping down from The Daily Show, but there’s no doubt whatever he goes onto next will be worth our time. Hell, maybe I’m completely wrong and he’s in talks right now to take NBC Nightly News from the embattled, suspended Brian Williams. (Although I seriously doubt it.) Whatever his reason for finally calling it a day, though, it’s easy to respect it. That’s because you know it’s coming from the right place — from the heart of a guy who for 16 years has put that heart into every single broadcast of every single episode of the best damn phony news show that’s ever existed. He’s earned this departure.
This article has been updated.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.