Like everyone born after 1982, I grew up with The Daily Show. When Jon Stewart took over the show in 1999 I was still in middle school, which means that for me and people younger than me, The Daily Show has been around for every presidential election that we were aware of. Children who were in preschool when the show started are now old enough to vote in the 2016 presidential election, and for most of us in the millennial age range, it will be the first time voting without Jon Stewart on the air.
The Daily Show has been the newsfeed of choice for millennials for years now, because we're either too inept or too cynical for our own good, depending on which shitty pundit you listen to. Conservative bloggers bemoan how much the youths depend on Jon Stewart even as they write about how terrible mainstream media is (usually ignoring the fact that among general audiences Fox is the most watched and most trusted).
There’s been a lot of pearl-clutching over how much trust people put in The Daily Show for news. Even Stewart has admitted that he’s uncomfortable with the idea that people look to him for actual news, and rightly so, since the show comes up short as investigative journalism. But no one has been looking to The Daily Show for “news” the way other generations have consumed it, we’ve been watching the show for the perspective, for the research, and for the willingness to not put up with bullshit.
The Daily Show has been a watchdog more than anything else, a point that critics seem to miss. Hypocrisy has been one of the driving themes of the show, exposing the shitty two-facedness of bad liars often by simply running multiple clips of them on talk shows. When John McCain kept making up new reasons to prolong Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, even as every criterion he made up got satisfied, The Daily Show presented every instance of him changing his mind about who Congress should talk to to see if gay soldiers deserved to serve openly.
In 2010 when House Republicans voted down a bill to extend health coverage for 9/11 first responders, Stewart ran a montage showing the extent of the bullshit reasoning behind it, the gentle pundit acquiescence to the defeat, and the two-thirds majority success in the same term of a bill protecting gun-owners from losing their firearms during bankruptcy. He berated the decision in subsequent episodes, inviting on 9/11 first responders to talk about their medical problems, and highlighting the ways that conservatives in Congress were all about using the terrorist attack for ideological leverage, but couldn’t be bothered to give a shit when the time came to actually aid people affected by it. (Note: as a bonus, the video below includes an irate Anthony Weiner pre-dick shaming.)
So the climate of despair makes sense, the worries that without Jon Stewart to cut through the noise we’ll just be left with the major networks, the ones Stewart ripped apart gleefully in the beginning, then morosely. When young people say, “What are we going to do without Jon Stewart?” they aren’t wondering where they’re going to get their news from. They’re worrying about who’s going to go sock-ripping terrier on politicians and journalists when they’re being ham-faced liars.
It’s not that he’s news, it’s that he’s commentary. Take this past Monday’s show, when Stewart played clips reporting that the U.N. security council unanimously backed the Iranian nuclear agreement, then showed Human Sour Patch Kid Mike Huckabee calling it a march “to the oven door” for Israelis. Stewart's segment edited together politicians condemning Huckabee, Huckabee doubling down, political commentators analyzing his doubling down, Huckabee criticizing Beyoncé for being too explicit about who the fuck cares what, and all Stewart had to do to keep the narrative going was issue some well-placed grunts and a wave of his middle finger.
No one thinks this is news. It was news the week before, when Huckabee first made the remarks, but Stewart used the show’s standard “let them hang themselves” format to put the comment in context of the broad international support for the Iran deal, and contrasted it with Huckabee’s tendency to blubber that anyone he disagrees with is incapable of the subtlety he deploys when he makes a Holocaust comment every time the Middle East or Barack Obama come up. Stewart has the process down so well that he literally didn’t need words this time around.
And the people who trust Stewart get the difference between Stewart and Walter Cronkite. After all, they weren’t the people who fell for The Colbert Report’s shtick (“Finally! A conservative Jon Stewart!”).
Even Stewart’s fuck ups have served as object lessons in skepticism, like his defense to the last inch that there was no way that was Anthony Weiner’s dick. But his mea culpa—a press conference with a stern-faced John Oliver and a rogue margarita glass that turned into a sacrificial blood-letting—was more memorable than maybe anything else on the show that year.
It's easy to see, when you look back, that this was a long time coming. Stewart has been exhausted for a while, and speculation was rampant when he took his first and only extended break in 2013 with John Oliver as a sub. There's only so much awfulness you can expose yourself to before it ages you prematurely (Stewart has grayed like a U.S. president) and makes you, as Stewart said when he announced his departure, "less than fully committed" to staring at the American abyss for any longer. Even without knowing his end was coming, the unguarded joy he showed when interviewing someone like Malala Yousafzai betrayed just how tired he was with the rest of the circus.
But Stewart has a firm legacy on the air. Stephen Colbert singlehandedly taught most Americans how super PACs worked (then started one), and John Oliver has taken his time at The Daily Show and turned it into the aggressive and easily-shared Last Week Tonight. And online media is made for Stewart’s brand of accountability antagonism, with the rise of Twitter outrage-activism.
For all the cringing and whining about the stock that millennials put in The Daily Show, Stewart actually raised a generation of skeptics, whether he likes it or not. I’m not worried about going into an election season without Jon Stewart—partly because between Larry Wilmore and John Oliver there should be enough snark to keep everyone on their toes, but also because the show trained people to watch politics and the media for those hypocritical inconsistencies.
So when the story broke that Stewart lost it at former Daily Show writer Wyatt Cenac, it was disappointing, but Stewart had already taught us too much for it to be surprising. In an interview with Marc Maron, Cenac shared that he spoke up in a 2011 writer’s meeting about Stewart’s impression of Herman Cain, saying it made him uncomfortable and had an Amos ‘n Andy tinge to it. Stewart didn’t take the criticism well, accusing Cenac of having a “tone” and then repeatedly shouting, “Fuck off, I’m done with you.”
The (admittedly mild) controversy was like hearing a favorite uncle curse out a cousin. Cenac being the only black writer working for the show at that point doesn’t help either, and gives the scenario a paternalistic tinge. It’s easy to place yourself in Cenac’s shoes, a young writer working for The Daily Show, underneath the man who’s been the steady backdrop of American culture for over a decade, maybe not wide-eyed but still awed and intimidated. Standing up to Stewart couldn’t have been easy, and his reaction left Cenac literally crying in a baseball field, which is a weirdly perfect image of lost youthful innocence.
If The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have taught America anything since 1999, it’s to always keep a skeptical eye toward people in power. And even amongst his critics, there’s no one out there who would deny that Stewart has wielded considerable power during his reign amongst the most trusted voices on TV. But even someone who makes it his job to call out lying politicians can make poor judgment calls. Hero worship isn’t based in reality, and that’s the last, best lesson to take away from the funniest man in fake news.