President Obama, Politico recently reported, summoned Jon Stewart to the White House in 2011 and 2014 – a news item that, in some quarters, fed suspicions of a vast left-wing conspiracy between Democrats and the supposedly liberal media.
Stewart said Obama beckoned him to chide him about turning young people cynical. He downplayed the presidential powwows as not “really that big a deal" – and quipped that the sessions also included Elvis Presley, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Area 51 alien.
Forget about the intrigue theories and the jokes: The Politico account, which comes as Stewart nears the ends of a 16-year tenure on “The Daily Show,” highlights his influence (or perceived influence) – not only in reaching a young audience, but in his de-facto news delivery power, via a late night comedy program. Stewart might not have turned young people cynical, as the President feared, but he’s likely made viewers of all ages more healthily skeptical in an age of rancorous partisanship amid a multi-media information explosion.
Stewart, after wringing laughs, rueful and hearty, out of the turbulent start to this century, leaves us Thursday with a final moment of Zen – capping a remarkable run that helped bring late night comedy to a new zenith.
He took the original "Daily Show," an entertaining "Weekend Update"-style joke-fest led by Craig Kilborn, and quickly remade it in his own image: edgy, intellectually restless and relentlessly questioning, fueled by a silly-smart approach (remember Gitmo, the Elmo-like Guantanamo Bay prisoner puppet?) that spoke to much of his generation and those younger.
Stewart’s sardonic style harkened to one of his clear influences, David Letterman. Like the recently retired Letterman, Stewart’s imprint can be seen across the TV landscape.
Look no further than some of Stewart’s former “correspondents”: Soon-to-be Letterman successor Stephen Colbert pulled off playing a blowhard conservative commentator for nine years on "The Colbert Report." Former “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore dissects the news of the day with a wide array of guests on “The Nightly Report,” which replaced “Colbert” in Comedy Central’s line-up. John Oliver offers research- and reporting-driven segments, which have tackled FIFA and the Miss America Pageant, among other subjects on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
Also like Letterman, Stewart broke rules. But while Letterman focused on upending TV conventions with gags like putting guests in dental chairs, Stewart at times thought further outside of the cathode-ray box, blurring lines along the way. In 2004, he went on CNN’s “Crossfire” and told the hosts to stop “hurting America.” Six years later, he and Colbert drew throngs to the Washington Mall for their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” an elaborate spoof – and repudiation – of a previous Glenn Beck event. The apparently anti-war Stewart has been outspoken in his support of U.S. military personnel, not only entertaining troops overseas, but running a TV jobs training program for veterans.
Stewart also has occasionally become as serious as the news, from his tearful post-9/11 address (“I just wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair”) to his recent reaction to the Charleston church shooting (“I honestly have nothing other than just sadness”). At times, especially in recent years, Stewart’s frustration and exasperation at the state of the country and the world has bled through, even amid his near-constant fusillade of jokes.
That kind of deep, emotional honesty might turn off some, but it’s undoubtedly helped bond him to his core viewership. The strong relationship gives Stewart an impact that belies the size of his audience, which never hit Letterman or “Tonight Show” levels.
Stewart’s reach also travels beyond the U.S., thanks largely to his early, smart use of the Internet. A segment filmed in Iran actually got the interview subject, journalist Maziar Bahari, imprisoned – inspiring Stewart to retell the story in the film, “Rosewater,” his directorial debut.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Stewart is perceived by some as far more than a comedian. A 2009 TIME magazine poll ranked him the country’s most trusted newscaster (even if he’s not a newscaster). A Pew Research Center report cited him as a major source of news for a significant number of young people. Stewart’s scoffed at that notion.
He’s also scoffed at the idea that the show can’t go on without him. Stewart, as previously noted, has created a program so strong that it doesn't necessarily need him to thrive, as evidenced by Oliver's impressive run as substitute host in the summer of 2013 during the filming of “Rosewater.” The incoming host, South African comedian Trevor Noah, remains largely unknown and untested in the U.S., though the 31-year-old appears on tap to bring both a younger and more international outlook to the job, come September.
During his likely final “Daily Show” appearance last month, Obama jokingly issued an executive order mandating Stewart to stay on the job. Stewart declined – and a week later mocked the President for not visiting his father’s hometown on recent trip to Kenya, just another entry in a long list of jibes at the chief executive. Stewart reportedly has bought a farm in his own ancestral homeland of New Jersey, and his future plans as an entertainer, if any, are unknown.
Fans would welcome him back in whatever form he chooses. In the meantime, Jon Stewart has earned a break after 16-plus years of providing humor and perspective during an era in which moments of Zen proved elusive.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.