Jon Stewart's final Daily Show was perhaps the best of the recent spate of late-night talk show finales, an hour-long tribute to the host's time on the show that began as an otherwise normal edition of the program and ended with Bruce Springsteen playing "Born to Run," probably the ultimate fantasy of a New Jersey son like Stewart.
In the meantime, Stephen Colbert made Stewart cry, Martin Scorsese popped up, and the host earnestly asked his audience to watch out for "bullshit." It was everything the Daily Show's most ardent fans could have wanted out of a finale and then some.
But the most significant thing that happened was a reminder of Stewart's stunningly impressive legacy.
The show opened with nearly every correspondent in the series' history coming back
During Stewart's run on the program, The Daily Show became as reliable a provider of comedic talent as Saturday Night Live. The series produced other talk show hosts — like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver — and a host of big-name actors, including one Oscar nominee (Steve Carell).
Thank you Jon Stewart.— Steve Carell (@SteveCarell) August 7, 2015
Fittingly, then, the "star-studded" portion of the evening was right at the top. Beginning with three of the show's current correspondents — Jessica Williams, Hasan Minhaj, and Jordan Klepper — claiming to be on the ground covering the night's Republican debate, the segment grew and grew, until it encompassed essentially every major voice in the show's history, dipping all the way back to figures like Mo Rocca and Vance DeGeneres, from Stewart's very early days, and even working in original Daily Show host Craig Kilborn. It was like the alt-comedy version of This Is Your Life. There was even time for a visit from Stewart's biggest targets.
But the biggest moments were for Oliver and Colbert. The former, now on HBO, gently mocked his old boss for continuing to work within the constraints of basic cable, pretending to have no idea what commercials were. The latter made Stewart tear up, first with an elaborate analogy where Colbert was Sam and Stewart Frodo Baggins, then with a heartfelt speech about how much Stewart had meant to all of them.
It concluded with a group hug for the ages.
Wyatt Cenac was there, too
Former correspondent Cenac made headlines earlier in the summer when he told podcast host Marc Maron that Stewart yelled, "Fuck you!" at Cenac after Cenac raised concerns with Stewart's impression of then-presidential candidate Herman Cain.
In the interview, Cenac said he wasn't yet sure if he could put aside some of his hard feelings about the show to return for the final episode. But he was there for the giant correspondents' reunion, and both Stewart and he ensured the audience that they were good.
Considering a wider dialogue about the issues Cenac raised was probably impossible, this was about as heartwarming a moment as could be expected.
Stewart's parting words were an entreaty against "bullshit"
In the show's final segment, where an interview with a famous guest would normally sit, Stewart launched into an impassioned monologue to his audience, one that asked them to watch out, at all costs, for "bullshit."
The New York Times's Dave Itzkoff roughly transcribed the speech.
My rough transcript of Jon Stewart's extraordinary "Bullshit is everywhere" speech. pic.twitter.com/guXBbIDD9g— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) August 7, 2015
The speech is in keeping with everything Stewart stood for during his tenure on the show. As I wrote earlier, Stewart was intensely, immensely skeptical, and he wasn't afraid to call people on it when he thought they weren't being straight with him. And it didn't matter if the person misleading him was a government official or a movie star — he was there to call out if what they were saying was bullshit.
Also, famously, one of his most famous segments was entitled "Chaos on Bullshit Mountain."
If Stewart seemed to have a primary desire, it was to create the same skepticism in his viewers. His final speech, then, stands as a kind of call to arms to not accept the official story or the status quo. Things are darkest, Stewart argues, when they have a seemingly friendly name on them and the most complex when they're easy to overlook.
It wasn't his best monologue or his most impassioned one. But as a final statement of purpose (for now), it worked quite nicely.
The broadcast also featured East Coast heroes Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese
After one last farewell, Stewart threw to what he called, "my moment of Zen," which turned out to be Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, there to perform "Land of Hope and Dreams" and the end of "Born to Run." It was about as perfect a sendoff as a Jersey native could have hoped for.
Earlier, however, in a segment that will surely be less talked about than others, Stewart took his viewers on a backstage tour of The Daily Show that aped the famous tracking shot from Goodfellas, in order to introduce the crew that had made the show run like clockwork all these years. In the middle of it, the director of that film, Martin Scorsese, appeared in a back room, jokingly warning Stewart that he would sue if the host didn't stop ripping him off.
Also, this happened.
Trevor Noah was there, taking measurements
The future host of The Daily Show popped up briefly in the correspondents' segment, measuring the set, desk, and Stewart's crotch with a tape measure, before exiting backstage. Stewart, chagrined, asked, "Can you give me about 20 minutes?" (He would need closer to 50.)
Stewart's legacy is strong
Even if The Daily Show had become an utterly terrible TV program (and it hasn't), then Stewart's legacy would be secure thanks to all of the people who got their starts on his show. That he managed to maintain a mostly high level of quality across 16 years and was the most influential late-night host across much of his run only helps solidify everything that made his program such a must-see for so many.
Perhaps that's why this final episode was less immediately sentimental than the departures of either Colbert or David Letterman. Certainly there were moments when Stewart or others teared up, but for the most part, emotion was more restrained than you might have expected. That, however, made the finale all the more effective. It felt less like an athlete retiring and slouching off the field than it did said athlete being carried off on the shoulders of his teammates after scoring the winning goal in the championship game. Stewart wasn't at the absolute top of his game when he exited, but he was close enough, and that made it all the more interesting to see what would come next.
And it's also worthy of note that he turns the show over to Noah — a man of mixed racial descent from South Africa. If one thing was obvious over the course of the finale, it was that The Daily Show, for all of its progressive bona fides, was still filled with white men behind the scenes and in the writers' room. Late-night TV has always struggled with diversifying its personnel, and The Daily Show was no different. Perhaps Noah will be the person to finally shake this up.
The most important lesson of this episode: Jon Stewart's surprise face is as bad as Taylor Swift's
Every time a new correspondent would pop up, Stewart would put on a face of mock surprise that revealed just why his acting career never took off.
Don't worry, Jon. You can always host another TV show.
If you missed the episode, you can catch up at The Daily Show's website.