Hyperbole, Shakespeare and 16 years of Jon Stewart
After 16 years, some 2,600 episodes, and countless barbs, Thursday night marks Jon Stewart's final episode of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Over the last two decades, Stewart has interviewed hundreds of the most famous and powerful world figures, from President Barack Obama to Malala Yousafzai to Slaughterhouse Five-author Kurt Vonnegut. He has hosted fellow news pundits (Bill O'Reilly), satirists (Bassem Yousef, Egypt's Daily Show-esque host), and comedians like long-time friend Louis C.K. who made for his final appearance on Wednesday's penultimate episode.
The show began last night with Stewart poking fun at the media for all the praise its given him over the years, pointing to headlines that hyperbolize the effects of satire: "Jon Stewart eviscerates CNN," "Jon Stewart crushes idiotic Wolf Blitzer ploy," "Jon Stewart positively destroys anti-gay marriage arguments" — the list goes on.
Stewart takes the praise with humility, not hubris. He points out that so many of the subjects he supposedly "destroyed" remain just as oppressive and virulent as they were 16 years ago. Fox News, international terrorism, race relations in the Unites States, big bankers impervious to the law — another list that goes on. In a parody of Hamlet, the lights dim and Stewart holds up a skull:
"Hath my efforts all been for naught? As I shuffle off this basic cable coil, must I discover my years of evisceration have embettered nothing? Sixteen years of barbs and jeers spurred nothing to greatness?"
It might be worth noting that the skull in the famous Shakespeare play belonged to Yurick, a court jester remembered for little more than a few laughs. It's a morbid scene, but not melodramatic. As he holds the deathly remains and contemplates the fleetingness of life, the matured Hamlet now realizes that the lowly court jester is no different from the high world rulers. Alexander the Great also returned to dust. The cats and dogs will both have their day. The cycle of life equalizes.
And not all for naught, as Stewart notes. The show may not have toppled ISIS, but his beloved New York Mets are finally leading their MLB division. Laughs break up the sadness. Maybe the Hamlet parody was just a convenient device conjured by Stewart and his team of dedicated writers at the last minute, but the deep-reader in me is getting sentimental about tonight's show, even though I know better. This isn't a death; it's a celebration of a life that has already brought so much to the world.
If the retrospective of Stewart's "epic takedowns" reveals anything, it's that for the last 16 years, millions of people all over the world — especially those in the news biz — have been paying attention to what this one Jewish comic from New Jersey has to say about current events. Stewart would probably never admit it, but he has been a polestar for an entire generation. He blended journalistic rigor with talk-show commentary. He brought media interrogation and nothing-is-sacred humor to a political landscape that was lacking it in the mainstream before the 1990s. An older journalist pointed out last night on the radio that when Johnny Carson interviewed Ronald Reagan on the Tonight Show in 1975, it was all softball questions. When Stewart interviewed Nancy Pelosi in 2014, he asks about corrupting influence of money in politics and lack of legislative effort to address the problem. Of course, not all of his interviews were hard-hitting. He often had to sacrifice serious in-depth criticism for the sake of mass-consumable comedy. And for that and other reasons, Stewart had plenty of critics himself. But even those from more conservative media outlets couldn't help but watch Stewart all these years, and not just to disagree.
Of course Stewart isn't the hero that those headlines, read literally, would have you believe. But he's not just a court jester either. He's somewhere in between, reminding us of the value of fair and free speech in a world that wars against it at every turn. He also used his status to do a lot to elevate female comedians and comedians of color, including Larry Wilmore, Jessica Williams, Michael Che, and of course, his replacement Trevor Noah.
This finale will open the tear-gates for some tonight, but just remember: Stewart's not going underground. He's just passing the torch, and for all of our benefit, he's leaving with the bar set high.