How Jon Stewart Earned His Moment of Zen

Jon Stewart 2007 - H - 2015
Associated Press

Well, this just won’t do, will it?

Jon Stewart announced on his show Tuesday that he’s leaving and Comedy Central confirmed it later. Some time in the coming year the man who made skewering the news not only a great comedy series but a significant and important bit of social and media criticism will stop doing that. He will leave The Daily Show.

Selfishly, which is the gut reaction to something like this, it feels like a painful loss and something that happened too soon. It’s painful all right, but Stewart has been doing it for so long and with a brilliance and elan that defies those years that you can’t argue that he’s earned the right to give it up.

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Furthermore, letting go of something you’re great at before you’re not anymore is brave stuff. I applaud him for that. It’s human nature to hang on too long.

But I’ll admit to being surprisingly taken aback and sad about this news. It will gladden the people who were his biggest targets and it will look like gooey, liberal weepiness to get maudlin about a TV personality moving on to something else. I get that. But Stewart is a national treasure in my book – someone I’ve repeatedly said is one of the funniest people on the planet. You don’t just swap in a new person and all’s well.

And that’s really the early takeaway here. You can’t replace Jon Stewart. The show will undoubtedly go on and Comedy Central will find someone to take over the reins who will valiantly try to keep the standards high and the relevance there. John Oliver proved over the summer, when Stewart was off making his movie Rosewater, that an orderly transition of leadership is possible and that idiots everywhere, but particularly in Washington D.C., will get their due comeuppance via hilarious public flogging. The Daily Show — a watchdog on the media, done with humor but often done so much better than those whose sole job that is, will continue. Ignorance will be roasted. Incompetence will be outed. Bullshit will be detected.

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That still doesn’t mean that Stewart will be replaced.

And so I wouldn’t even dare suggest names now. For starters, these sentiments here are not hollow – you can’t replace the man. Furthermore, we’ve got a long time to speculate. Even a better and longer and more precise appreciation is something for the future.

Right now, the news of his departure is just a thing that’s unpleasant. Stewart will get a long goodbye, as is his due. And fans certainly deserve the right to bask in that victory lap. I for one can’t wait to see it. Hell, I’m even looking forward to writing about much of it. Stewart not only gave real relevance to Comedy Central, but he proved that comedy itself was often more effective than mere media criticism when it came to shining a light on the omnishambles that is TV news (and cable news in particular, since that particular strain rolls on even when there’s no news to report, which was the ur-moment in televised “journalism” dying at the altar of entertainment and ratings). Nobody did that better. And he gave us in some fashion three exceptional exponents of his brand of humor – Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore. That’s part of the legacy that we’ll all talk about in more detail later.

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Stewart and The Daily Show proved that you could take serious topics – serious books and serious authors  — and present them to the public somewhere other than PBS or C-SPAN. He and the show proved that shining and sustaining a light on what has been described as “the dumbassification of America” is not only funny, but also a public service (if not a bit of a downer when we all realized there was more than enough of it to fuel a nightly television series designed to mock it).

So, a deep sigh all around for that. A disappointed shake of the head and a tear or two of you want – all merited by today’s news that we’re losing a real original.

The show will go on – that’ll be covered extensively going forward. The chair will be occupied. Stewart will go on to do whatever he wants – write a book, make more films, spend time with his family and grow old without having to handle the toxicity of examining our lesser sides on a daily basis (and you can’t fault him for wanting a break from that).

But this news is not good at all. This is no moment of zen.

Twitter: @BastardMachine