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So much about television is about precision — everything goes just right, everybody hits their mark, the ending clicks to a close with perfection. But when you say goodbye, when you send off an icon, you need to leave a little room for emotion, for vulnerability, for something heartfelt and real to sneak in and then back out again through the lens and into the living room.
Thursday night’s final goodbye to Jon Stewart as he left The Daily Show on Comedy Central was as near to perfect as something like this can get. Stewart himself tried so incredibly hard to leave it as professionally and normally as ever, but he couldn’t hold back the emotion, he couldn’t sit behind the desk at a distance and say goodbye cleanly. There had to be tears, it had to run long, spontaneity had to have its way. And in what was maybe the best decision a channel could make, Comedy Central seemingly said, “Let it roll. Keep the lights on until it’s over, no matter what.”
And so fans of Stewart got all they could have hoped for in one of the best endings to a TV personality’s long, wonderful run in ages. It was funny and tight and heartfelt and unexpected. Most of all, the end was there to be shaped as Stewart wanted, with the cameras rolling until he said everything he wanted or needed to, until Bruce Springsteen (another Jersey boy), played him off with Stewart’s requested “Land Of Hopes and Dreams” and Springsteen’s “Born to Run” tagged on at the end, as staffers and correspondents poured out from behind the scenes and Stewart hugged his way to the microphone to say goodbye one last time with a slight crack in his voice.
Yes, as exits go, this is really how you want to do it.
Sixteen and a half years after he became host of The Daily Show, with roughly 2,600 episodes under his belt, Stewart joked that he wanted to have the final show be representative of what came before, and so it would cover the just-completed Republican presidential debate. And in a bit where the three young, future-leaning correspondents (Jordan Klepper, Hasan Minhaj and Jessica Williams) of The Daily Show were left to cover 10 different politicians, the skit took form — as a group of former Daily Show correspondents came back to fill out the coverage to all 10 candidates and then, naturally, way, way beyond. Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, Lewis Black, Kristen Schaal, Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, Vance DeGeneres, Mo Rocca, Dave Attell, Dan Bakkedahl, Matt Walsh, Larry Wilmore, Jason Jones, Josh Gad, Rob and Nate Corddry, Trevor Noah, Craig Kilborn, Olivia Munn, Rob Riggle, Ed Helms, Wyatt Cenac and then the final two, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, all were there to pay tribute to the man who gave them work, helped launch their careers and spread laughter through all kinds of media.
It was emotional, as expected — with Stewart staving off the tears on a number of occasions. He couldn’t keep it together as Colbert told him how much he meant to everyone. Stewart, sensing that things were going off script, off his carefully orchestrated goodbye, welled up amid laughs and said, “Please don’t do this,” with a smile, but Colbert pressed on to praise him. “We’re better people for having known you,” he said at the end, as Stewart hung his head and fought and failed to keep the tears at bay. As they broke for a commercial, scores of former correspondents rushed on to the stage and hugged Stewart as they all jumped up and down.
Needless to say, it was very, very hard to keep a dry eye at that point.
So much has been written about how Stewart changed late night but more importantly changed the way we looked at and dissected media, politics, celebrity, etc. He — and The Daily Show — were the ultimate bullshit detectors, so it was fitting that in his closing remarks Stewart talked about the need for the republic, for people everywhere, to not just blindly accept what they’re told, what they’re fed. “Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. If you smell something, say something.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what Stewart and The Daily Show did for more than 16 years. They called bullshit on everything from the president to your local city council. Nobody did it quite like that before him, which is why he goes out as a true original. Noah may take over The Daily Show and stamp it with his personality, but the template was set with Stewart and it’ll be damned hard to improve upon.
Most final shows are messy affairs that often seem truncated or gift-wrapped a little too neatly. But not this one. Stewart let a lot of politicians — from both sides of the aisle — get their last laughs and jabs in via a taped bit that worked well. From Hillary Clinton to Bill O’Reilly and John McCain, the digs were dealt.
And in a very Jon Stewart touch — he’s known for doling out appreciation to those who made the show what it was through the years — a taped bit guided the camera through the halls as Stewart narrated a story of how the show was made, naming his entire staff and how they contributed, with bits of humor and randomness tossed in (and even a cameo from Martin Scorsese).
It was a clever, artful segment that worked so much better than saying “I can’t thank everybody enough” or “thanks to my staff” — it felt personal, creative and funny.
And then it all got wonderfully rag-tag at the end, with deep feeling creeping into his voice, with precision set aside in favor of authenticity. Stewart talked about the journey and what the job meant: “It still feels like a dream a little bit.”
He thanked his wife and kids (“for teaching me what joy looks like”) and noted that he couldn’t look over toward them — his desire to keep it all professional and not lose it to the emotions that were rushing up inside was valiant, but ultimately couldn’t be upheld. Crying was inevitable. Because it was clear by this final episode/sly tribute that the people who worked with Stewart really love him and they knew what the moment meant — to the culture and to all of them personally. He tried to construct a narrative about life and the show going on, that there was no real need to be definitive about the end. “Rather than say goodbye and goodnight, I’m going to get a drink,” he said, as if he could just walk out the back door and into the night and we’d all just go quietly on to something else.
It was way, way too emotional at that point. You can be as jaded as, well, a critic and still be moved by what 16 years of nightly work in the medium means, by how one of the funniest people on the planet shaped media and political commentary in the guise of just giving everybody a laugh. You can know that we were all a little blessed to have witnessed it, to have shared those years and those laughs. So when Stewart closed it out by saying this was his moment of Zen — Springsteen playing him off — there was that joyous exhale where all the correspondents and staff danced and took videos and pictures and celebrated the very last Jon Stewart-hosted Daily Show.
It was a finely realized moment of television, where all the polish came off and the emotions came out and it was a really wonderful, lovely, moving, shared national experience. If you’re going to go out, do it like this.
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