One reason for the stunned, grieving reaction to Jon Stewart's announcement that he's leaving The Daily Show is this: We took him for granted.
Since January of 1999, Mr. Stewart has been there, four nights a week, offering a mocking, sometimes searing, usually hilarious commentary on politics and the American national media. He became a fixture, just as the nightly network news program used to be an important fixture. A generation has become used to seeing the world through the eyes of Mr. Stewart and his writers. It is, in so many ways, the news program that now matters most.
In 2004, The Daily Show won the TCA (Television Critics Association) Award for Outstanding achievement in News and Information. The PBS program Frontline had won in both 2002 and 2003; 60 Minutes had also won it a few times.
Mr. Stewart came to our little awards ceremony. It was hard to spot him, though. A short man, he surrounded himself with the show's writers and seemed shy about the attention. When he stepped up to accept the award, his face took on that familiar look of astonished puzzlement. "You guys know it isn't a real news program, right?" he asked the assembled critics, and stepped away.
Yes, we knew, but knew too that The Daily Show had added immeasurably to the arena of news and information on TV. It was revolutionary and part of a larger revolution. Mr. Stewart, as performer, writer and producer, was a vital provocateur in the revolution, and then he initiated his own.
The period of Stewart's shepherding of The Daily Show paralleled a seismic shift in television. His arrival was almost simultaneous with the launch of The Sopranos on HBO, and thus he was part of the slow demolition of U.S network TV's stranglehold on both entertainment and news. Just as cable dramas became the most significant storytelling medium of our age, The Daily Show, and then its spinoffs, became crucial to understanding the mores and methods of network news and mainstream media.
Mr. Stewart's own revolution was, first, the depth and integrity of The Daily Show. Comedy, yes, but a caustic seriousness in his livid derision of partisan bombast on cable news programs. When those all-bickering shows on CNN and FOX News were all the rage, Mr. Stewart went after one of them, Crossfire on CNN, and essentially killed it. Famously, he then appeared as a guest on it. He simply pointed out that every issue, no matter how complex, was reduced to "left versus right." and that vitriol was the oxygen of Crossfire. He said it wasn't fair to criticize Crossfire from a distance, and he was on the show because "I should come here and tell you, it's not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America." Crossfire was dead soon after.
Part of the depth and integrity has been Stewart's superb interviews with writers of serious books about political and social issues. Authors who appear on The Daily Show are not there merely to plug a book. They are there to discuss issues that matter. In this alone, The Daily Show has made every other late-night entertainment show look air-headed.
The Daily Show created and unleashed Stephen Colbert's manic creation The Colbert Report, and that show along with Mr. Stewart's program became a vital one-two punch at mainstream American news and politics. After Mr. Colbert established his ridiculous, self-aggrandizing right-wing persona, it was impossible to look at FOX news as anything other than hilariously addled blathering.
Mr. Stewart gave John Oliver the freedom to do outrageous reporting on The Daily Show and wished him well when Mr. Oliver's stand-in hosting led to his own news-mockery program on HBO, which is now flourishing. After Mr. Colbert departed to replace David Letterman, Mr. Stewart again instigated something revolutionary in putting his former "Senior Black Correspondent," Larry Wilmore, in Mr. Colbert's place, with a mandate to take issues of race and run with them as invective comedy.//
For decades, late-night network chat shows had the same template. A host, a monologue, a band, some guests promoting a movie, TV show or book. Always the same darn thing, with ABC, NBC and CBS fighting for bragging rights about the ratings. The Daily Show, and everything it has spawned, finally razed the old edifices of late-night TV. Many tried, but only Mr. Stewart and The Daily Show succeeded.
At times Mr. Stewart has been accused of attacking "low-hanging fruit" for comedy – the too-obvious targets of lying politicians or narcissistic nitwits in cable news. At times yes, the jokes were obvious. But Jon Stewart was often the lone voice of sanity in the U.S. media during the culture wars and the post-9/11 paranoia. He pilloried TV news for its bungling, bush-league incompetence. He pulverized politicians for inaccuracy and craven pandering to the base instincts of voters. He taught an entire generation to be skeptical of the status quo and taught that generation a lesson in media literacy.
It worked. That's why we took him for granted. And now begins speculation about who might replace Mr. Stewart. The usual stew of conjecture about late-night moves. But after Mr. Stewart's announcement became known on Tuesday night, Tim Goodman, chief critic for The Hollywood Reporter, put it best: "I have no interest in talking about who will replace Jon Stewart. Because they can't. And it's too soon."