Jon Stewart Had to Destroy Late-Night TV in Order to Save It

Jon Stewart on the set of the Daily Show Photo: Martin Crook/Comedy Central

Early on, the narrative seemed so obvious as to barely need explaining. Jon Stewart, who’d improbably elevated a local-news parody on Comedy Central into appointment-watch political satire, would one day claim his reward by ascending to one of broadcast’s coveted late-night chairs. He’d succeed Letterman, most likely, given that Letterman is Stewart’s professed hero and Letterman had long supported Stewart, implicitly and explicitly, as his eventual heir. Case closed — the only question was one of timing. This all seemed so obvious because, for a certain kind of a comedian, hosting a late-night show was the single greatest career achievement imaginable. Stewart had taken a thwarted swing at this gig early in his career, as the host of MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show, a.k.a. The Tonight Show for Slackers. It didn’t work out, and for a while, Stewart seemed like a man without a gig. (For a brief period in 1996, he hosted a show called Where’s Elvis This Week?, which aired in the U.K. on BBC2.) It’s nearly impossible to imagine that once upon a time the single burning question around Jon Stewart was: Can he possibly fill the shoes of Craig Kilborn? 

It’s especially impossible to imagine that now because, as it turns out, Stewart’s soon-to-be-concluded 16-year run as the host of The Daily Show wasn’t a prolonged audition to host The Tonight Show or The Late Show but rather a prolonged campaign to systematically render shows like The Tonight Show and The Late Show obsolete. The nightly ritual perfected by the sainted Johnny Carson — a kind of national tucking-in, with a side order of Zsa Zsa Gabor — now feels as quaint and culturally anachronistic as The Ed Sullivan Show or The Lawrence Welk Show. With The Daily Show, Stewart single-handedly transformed our national nightly viewing habit from one of glamour-tinged escapism to one of ritual political catharsis. (Single-handedly — with the help, of course, of a parade of outlandishly talented correspondents and consistently great writers, The Daily Show having become the dream gig of every comedy writer in the country, just as SNL and The Simpsons once had been.)

What Stewart figured out — and it took awhile; you may remember the still-evolving early days of his Daily Show, which featured those gotcha fake-news remotes that preyed on clueless doofuses across the country — is that a generation of Americans didn’t want to forget their troubles as they drifted off to sleep. They wanted to see their troubles lampooned, skewered, and deflated. They wanted to laugh, yes, but in way that directly addressed, not distracted from, their real concerns. They wanted someone to voice their outrage, and in this way to have their outrage made less dire. They did not want pet tricks or starlets or visits from the local zookeeper. They wanted something like psychic relief from the relentless idiocy of the world. 

Many people will twin the stepping-aside of Stewart with the suspension of Brian Williams and call it a momentous moment for TV news. But the fact is that, even back when Stewart started his current job in 1999, the clay feet of news anchors were starting to crumble. The Big Three at that time — and the last trio that will ever be called that — were Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather: One has since died, one’s graduated to America’s Anchor Emeritus, and one lives in a kind of newsman exile. The decline of the 6 o’clock news as a touchstone is a technological story more than a cultural one: The rise of cable, and then the internet, created a news-scape that promises a thousand niche-targeted channels that will only ever tell you what you already believe. You could make the same assessment of Stewart’s Daily Show — despite its claims of being apolitical, it rarely upends the orthodoxy of its core viewership — but the difference is that what the Daily Show told you was this: Everything is broken, we’re all fucked, and no one can see this but us, so go to bed and get some rest with the assurance that we’ll all gather again to lament the same time tomorrow. Just because you happened to already believe all this didn’t mean it was any less true, or that being reassured that you had fellow travelers who felt the same was any less comforting.

So here’s the surprise ending, or next chapter, to Stewart’s story: As he steps aside, late night is also broken, in the best way, and the person who did the breaking was Jon Stewart. The late-night talk shows that people like Stewart were once supposed to aspire to are in the throes of a genre-wide reinvention. Jimmy Fallon has revivified The Tonight Show, largely by splitting it up into easily consumable, internet-ready chunks of fun. (Compare that to his predecessor Jay Leno, who was the ultimate keeper of the flame: He was appealing as Carson’s heir precisely because everything he was good at, Carson was better at.) Stephen Colbert is about to reinvent The Late Show in some as-yet-unforeseeable way; this is pop culture’s most intriguing black box, given that Colbert will be introducing his audience not only to a new show but to a new Stephen Colbert. The other late-night shows mostly chug along as moneymakers that rely on an obsolete model, like those internet companies in Nicholas Carlson’s recent book about Yahoo that turn a reliable profit but inspire no cultural excitement. Meanwhile, Stewart’s formidable legacy is already evident everywhere: from the rise of Colbert to the emergence of John Oliver to the debut of Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. And Stewart’s soon-to-be-vacated chair — which once seemed simply like an ejector seat that would vault him to some greater late-night glory — instantly becomes the hottest chair in television. Stewart didn’t conquer late night; he ransacked it, then rebuilt it. In doing so, he’ll leave behind a single burning question: Who can possibly fill the shoes of Jon Stewart?