Jon Stewart's final Daily Show, airing Thursday, August 6, will almost certainly be a nostalgia trip. The final episodes of long-running talk shows — see also (recently) David Letterman, Stephen Colbert — almost always are.
But the end of Stewart's run also marks another major shift in late night. Increasingly, the format seems to be dominated by voices that trade in earnestness, not cynical snark. Jimmy Fallon is the new king of the time period, and even if Stewart is exiting at almost the perfect moment, the medium has passed him by, just a little bit.
The root of Stewart's success is in his anger
One thing that's remarked upon too little with Stewart is just what an angry comedian he could be, even in the pre–Daily Show days. As part of a larger feature on major Daily Show moments, comedian Denis Leary (well known for bitter anger himself) told the New York Times:
At some point in the mid- to late ’80s on the New York scene, I was the angry smoking guy and he was the angry smoking Jewish guy. He’s always been cantankerous and angry, even in front of the crowd, but he was so charming and smart. The four tools that he had were the same ones that he started to use when he got on The Daily Show. He has great, real anger; really, really terrific comedy timing; the ability to rant; and the brains.
While Stewart gets praised a lot for his intelligence, his political acumen, and his wickedly sharp sense of humor, you don't often hear the host get praised for his raw, sometimes unsettling anger. But it's that anger, that certainty that something somewhere is very, very wrong and nobody is doing anything to fix it, that ties all of the other elements of Stewart's persona into something coherent and comedic.
Just look, for instance, at all of the attempts by various outlets to find a "conservative" Jon Stewart. Probably the closest anybody came was Dennis Miller, but he didn't succeed as wildly as Stewart because Miller's central persona is that of the smug outsider, the guy who knows you and he are smarter than everybody in the room so you can stand off to the side and mock the others. Bill Maher tried a similar approach to Miller from the libertarian left, and though he carved out a niche, he was nowhere near as impactful as Stewart.
No, the thing that made Stewart so big was that anger. Anger is visceral. It's one of our most basic, potent emotions, and even if you disagreed with what Stewart was angry about, you could feel, on that gut level, just what that anger might feel like. Plus, his targets — politicians and, especially, the national media — were easy to be angry at in the abstract. You could support George W. Bush or Barack Obama and still think the country was going to hell. And Stewart, a milder, funnier Howard Beale, handily channeled that apoplexy.
Stewart, of course, appealed much more to those who leaned left than right, which is why his show sometimes struggled in the Obama era. (Tellingly, he might lay into the administration, but his best material was never really in it in the way it was during the Bush years.) But it was easy to hear around water coolers — first real, then virtual — how Stewart captured the irritation and eventual anger of a political movement that often found itself rudderless during his years hosting the show. Stewart lived in the gap between the real world and the world progressives imagined as a better one, and he kept urging his core audience into that space with him.
Jon Stewart realized his moment was about to pass
But I don't really think Jon Stewart is the late-night talk show host anymore. I hope you know what I mean by this. Every few years, some new host takes over as "the" guy, the person you have to watch every night (or at least catch up with on YouTube) if you want to be up on all the biggest jokes the next day. Like Letterman was for much of the '80s and '90s and Johnny Carson was for the '60s and '70s, Stewart was for the '00s. He defined his era, in ways both good and bad.
But Stewart's retirement may end up being as well-timed as any in recent memory, because his brand of angry humor increasingly seems out of step with whatever it is the country wants right now.
By far the most popular late-night talk show of the moment is the very nice, very anodyne Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which isn't a bad program, by any means, but lacks any discernible point of view beyond the idea that Fallon has a lot of celebrity friends. And the show is posting the kinds of late-night ratings that aren't supposed to be possible anymore, usually crushing the host's nearest competition.
Jimmy Kimmel over on ABC can be darkly acerbic, but in recent years he's trended more toward gentle wackiness, which plays better in YouTube clips. And even if Stephen Colbert (soon to be hosting CBS's late-night show) seems cut from the same cloth as Stewart, he's always been much gentler than his old boss. His satire could be savage, but it was rooted, on some level, in a kind of passionate optimism, a belief that things could be better someday. (Stewart seemed to think things would just keep getting worse, but that would be fine so long as it stayed funny.) And that's to say nothing of James Corden and Seth Meyers, stuffed even deeper into late-night and seemingly even more influenced by Fallon.
Because late-night talk shows are often such a good barometer of our national mood — they're among the few scripted programs that have to have topical material each and every night, after all — it's tempting to read too much into them, to assign to them the traits of the generations who supposedly enjoy them. But there's still something to the way that Fallon has become so very popular — and to how much his competitors seem to want to be him now.
Late-night has stopped being skeptical of its guests
Close in hand with Stewart's pessimism and cynicism was a kind of rough-hewn skepticism. The man was quick to toss aside the premise his guests brought to the show, whether that was a politician defending a disastrous health-care rollout or a celebrity guest with a movie Stewart thought might be terrible. He was pretty sure it was all bullshit. (He shares this quality with Letterman, another interviewer who could quickly and easily become utterly disengaged from what his guest was saying.)
That's a lot harder to spot with Fallon and his imitators. Fallon's chief advantage is the way he makes it seem like the audience is right there, hanging out with his celebrity guests. And that, to some degree, requires a degree of buying into whatever's being sold. It requires a kind of trust in whatever the guest is saying, no matter who that guest might be. It's difficult to imagine Fallon conducting an adversarial interview, nor would we want him to. None of his appeal lies in that direction.
Skepticism and irony and cynicism, then, have given way to a sort of earnestness. The economy is growing healthier. The US is much less involved in foreign wars than it was for the past decade and a half. And the leading candidate for a major party nomination is a reality TV show billionaire. It's a good time for earnest humor that proceeds from a desire for connection, not antagonism.
Intriguingly, both Stewart and the show he has hosted all these years seem to have realized this as well. His successor, Trevor Noah, tells politically motivated jokes — at a recent standup set of his I had a chance to see, an extended runner on how he doesn't know how "not to die" as a black man in the United States was particularly masterful — but he, tellingly, seems to skew more toward the idea that by pointing light into our darkest corners, he might encourage us to become better people.
Stewart and Noah can talk about the exact same story — say, the constant death of young black men at the hands of the police in America — and the former might shake his head in despair and say, "Can you believe this shit?" while the latter might suggest, "How can we fix this shit?" Stewart looked backward at horrible closed conversations. Noah (based on, admittedly, a limited sample size) looks forward to using those horrific stories to open new conversations that might be more fruitful than ones of the past.
That seems, perhaps, the right approach for an age that is more interested in engaging with deep, seemingly unsolvable problems than prior decades. But it also suggests that Stewart is choosing the exact right moment to step down. As he does, however, let's not forget that part of what made him so potent was that rage, that sense that the world would always be out of joint and he was the only one out there yelling about it.