Tonight is Jon Stewart’s last night as host of The Daily Show. Since Jon first announced a few months that he would be vacating the anchor spot he took over from Craig Kilborn 16 years ago, a tidal wave of think-pieces on the legacy of what Jon will be leaving behind have flooded both the Internet and TV. While I know that this little ditty will sometimes devolve into that sort of rambling pontificatin’, I wanted to start out with a personal story. Seems fitting, really, since so many of us who love Jon and the work he did to keep his viewers apprised of what was going on in the world tend to act like he’s an older brother, one who guides us in the ways of life and smack us in the face, telling us to quit pretending we read Sartre and give lip service to causes and to pay the fuck attention.
I started college in the fall of 1998. I enrolled in the liberal arts school Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a college that had just over a thousand students at the height of enrollment when I graduated in 2002. While Danville was no large city, I had come from an even smaller town in Kentucky, a town nestled in a county of 17,000 residents total. While I had some thinkin’ skills upon entering Centre, I was fairly intimidated, as I think most college freshmen tend to be during their first foray into Academia with a capital A. Not only was I enrolled in a college, where Smart People were bound to be thinking Smart Things, but I had picked Centre because it was renowned for its reputation for being a school of rigor. Why I did that to myself sometimes escapes me, but I felt awash in a sea of folks who had to have had it together more than I did.
Whether that was true or not, I’m still not sure, but I still felt like a naïf. A faker. A pretender. I had gone to college, in some small part, because I wanted to make an impact on the world, and it was clear after talking to some of my fellow students and learning from my professors that, apparently, I knew fuck-all about that world. Sure, I read newspapers and watched the nightly news, but I still felt grossly inept and uninformed about What Really Mattered.
And then I discovered Jon. Okay, maybe not discovered. I knew of Jon Stewart from his acting roles, which he has mocked mercilessly during his time on The Daily Show, as well as from his ill-fated talk show on MTV. When he took over for Kilborn in 1999, I had enjoyed The Daily Show well enough. It was a spoof on the nightly news and pretty harmless. And when Jon took the helm, it seemed like things were going to be Business As Usual.
I’ve read a lot of Jon Stewart tributes in the past few weeks, with many writers trying to pinpoint when his shift from sarcastic funny man to comedic gadfly happened. For me, it was during the 2000 presidential election. You probably remember that one. For context for this fall’s incoming freshmen who were just three—Jesus Christ—when this hullabaloo happened, we were without a President of the United States for fucking weeks due to recount after stalled recount, until the Supreme Court ultimately declared George W. Bush king of democracy. The 24-hour cycle clusterfuck of “news” that flows in like a deluge every second on TV, the Internet, and social media might seem crazy but normal, but that period in 2000 was bananas. (And, with that, I’m officially old. “And we walked to our polling stations 20 miles in the snow, uphill both ways!”)
Maybe the switch came earlier for Jon, but, in my mind, I like to think that he looked at the lunacy that swirled around the election and the period that followed and said, “I can’t just throw out glib jibes while this insanity pummels us. Maybe there’s something more we can do.” And, just like that, somehow The Daily Show became a haven for those of us who looked at the political and news landscape and thought that something was off and felt that someone should maybe tell the emperor that he’s bare-ass naked. And even more than that, Jon also spoke to folks like me, who wanted to be informed but didn’t even know the right questions to ask or where to start.
While I will always look to Jon as the man who helped keep me “in the know” about world events, I will also credit him as someone who had a part in me growing up during those years at Centre. While the Internet was still a scary wasteland of Geocities sites and proto-memes, Jon soused out the news stories that impacted our world and pulled the veil so that we could take a peek. Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Bill Hicks before him, he let us know that it was okay to hold the press and the government’s feet to the fire—not that just okay, but our responsibility as Americans living in a democratic society. Jon would often discount his role as a conduit for news, saying he was just a comedian. A lot of his detractors scoff and use the same argument to dismiss him, either out of ignorance or to diminish his impact. But, at least for me, Jon opened my eyes to a world behind the world that I only laughably thought I knew. And he did it in a way that told us that it was okay to be pissed off about what we saw.
To that end, Jon not only covered stories that were getting national and international attention, but also tales that were being woefully underreported, such as the various scandals and missteps at the Department of Veterans affairs. In addition, he would expound on the stories that were getting the most press in a way that the nightly news only skidded over, in part due to their format and, possibly, due to their corporate interests. And while I’m sure Jon probably had some of those stressors to contend with, I get the notion the audience never felt that way.
Social media has created a populace that’s very reactionary and has a short memory. I’m to blame for that behavior more often than I care to admit. We see stories that are supposed to make us indignant, we post on our various platforms about Why X Sucks, and a few days later we move on to the next episode. All the while, we often don’t do our due diligence in fact-checking these stories to see if the details therein are sound and true. Again, just as guilty as anyone for doing this. Jon and his Daily Show team, however, while making missteps at times, showed us that such due diligence is absolutely important in our society or we’re going to slide deeper down the slope of indignant, misplaced, uninformed anger, ineffectual without action and memory.
All of this is to say that, while I am certainly sad that Jon Stewart will be leaving The Daily Show desk, I smile and I’m grateful in the hand that he had in helping me and so many others become better citizens of this country and of the world. As he has said, Jon often gets accused of being a pessimist who drags down social discourse into a depressing place, but he really seems to be a champion for hope. During his 16 years as anchor, he has shown us the idiocy and the baffling actions that drive our world to implore us to do better. He has demonstrated that our duty is to do our own due diligence, to be informed about the world beyond what politicians or Facebook tells us to think, and that we don’t need to sit on what we learn, that it’s our responsibility to take that knowledge and pass it on and transform it into action.
As sad as I am to see Jon go, he’s really passing the baton to the rest of us. And I hope we take it.
Be sure to catch Jon Stewart‘s final episode as host of The Daily Show tonight at 11PM on Comedy Central.