Jon Stewart was not the first person to have noticed that a lot of television news is bullshit. Nor was he the first comedian to have realized that the defining features of the worst of it – pretentiousness, cliche, inauthenticity, lack of curiosity and, in the case of Fox News, partisan obliviousness – were ripe for mockery. He is not the one who discovered that truth is the first casualty, of everything.
What Mr. Stewart and his team of writers learned, slowly at first when he took over The Daily Show in 1999, and then with increasing enthusiasm and skill, was that they could not only milk the world's endless supply of b.s. for laughs – they could also put the laughs to a serious purpose, turning their fake news show into something more profound than many of the "real" news and public affairs programs it parodied.
On its best days, Mr. Stewart's show was a master class in journalistic criticism, and journalism itself. His targets, whether politicians or journalists, stood accused not so much of being wrong as being uninterested in the truth.
One of the finer moments of Mr. Stewart's career came in 2004, on CNN's Crossfire. He turned the 14-minute guest segment into a prosecution. The show's hosts, left-winger Paul Begala and right-winger Tucker Carlson, didn't know what to say or do when repeatedly charged with estrangement from what matters in journalism, and in life: the truth. They didn't know how to respond when he accused their debate show of not having real debates where someone might run the risk of learning something, or even changing their mind.
"I would love to see a debate show," Mr. Stewart said when Mr. Carlson defended his program. But, he said, "you're doing theatre when you should be doing debate, which would be great. It's not honest. What you do is not honest. What you're doing is partisan hackery." He asked them, in all seriousness, to "stop hurting America." He basically accused the hosts of being intellectual prostitutes.
When Mr. Carlson tried to get Mr. Stewart to end the attacks and instead just tell benign jokes, he refused to play along. "No, I'm not going to be your monkey," he said. And then he went back to disassembling the hosts and their show from the guest's chair, humorously and effectively.
The emperor-has-no-clothes routine killed Crossfire; it was cancelled not long after. It probably wasn't fair to single out this one show, though: It may have degenerated into kitsch, but so had the rest of the neighbourhood.
The latest crop of dramatic television is among the smartest and best ever seen. But TV news and public affairs programming is another story; it has had a challenging time of late. The more ratings dropped, the more idiotic the idiot box's allegedly serious branch was urged to become. When ratings dropped some more, new doses of dumbing down were prescribed. The Daily Show was, in its best moments, a project of neighbourhood improvement.
In his Crossfire rant, Mr. Stewart wasn't trying to end a debate show; he was trying to provoke it into engaging in real debates – actual contests of ideas, an actual search for truth – rather than staged fights where professional self-promoters wearing colours of left and right, Republican and Democrat, put on the rhetorical equivalent of a professional wrestling match in the service of entertainment, not enlightenment.
The Daily Show always aimed at something higher than just laughs, however much Mr. Stewart denied it. But it was and is also a TV show like the others, subject to the realities of a ratings-driven world. This may explain why Mr. Stewart's humour was often delivered in a two-beat rhythm, with brainy insights followed by swiftly deployed f-bombs.
When criticized for this, or anything else, he always had an easy defence: I'm just a comedian. Minus the "just", he meant it. After all, he had more power, respect and freedom than the suckers he satirized.
He criticized the world as it is, but also lived by its rules. Once upon a time, comedians were told to not play blue, lest they damage their careers. That's not the world anymore. Mr. Stewart seems to have understood that unless he played a little blue and a lot childish, with braniac riffs on complex public policy issues bracketed by the easily accessible laughs to be had from one more release of the f-word, he'd run the risk of coming across as an egghead.
Some of his progeny, notably Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, were willing to risk alienating the audience by being smarter and more challenging than that. So far, it seems to have worked out pretty well for them. As for Jon Stewart, he leaves the television neighbourhood a better place than when he found it. Thank you, and goodnight.