Jon Stewart’s Greatest Legacy Will Be All of the Comic Superstars He Launched

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Larry Wilmore and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show's final episode. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Is there life after Jon Stewart?

Of course. Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show proved it.

When correspondent Olivia Munn gave Stewart a birthday cake and asked if he was 75 or 80 years old, there was truth in the joke: The host’s final hour in the chair he’d occupied for 16 years did feel a bit like a party for grandfather or great-great-grandfather — a beloved elder statesman whose far-flung clan had converged to pay him tribute and show off how successful they’d become since leaving the nest. The net effect was an unexpectedly relaxed, at times disorganized, installment of The Daily Show, light on sentiment and ultimately less interested in TV’s past than its present and future, which will be dominated by all of the performers Stewart nurtured.

This, much more so than his brand of satire or his critique of media failure, will be his legacy.

The roster of cameo players was practically an extended ad for Stewart’s influence within the industry. After Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show, a lot of people wondered if there would ever be another platform aside from Saturday Night Live that had the power to singlehandedly launch comic superstars. Under Stewart, The Daily Show stepped up, and probably without meaning to — as a by-product of trying to fill four shows a week with amusing material. The list of notable names is too long to dwell on here; there were so many “surprise” guest stars that few got more than a line or two, otherwise an already double-length show might’ve spilled over into three time periods. Munn, Lewis Black, Samantha Bee, John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Al Madrigal, Vance DeGeneres, Dave Attell, Jason Jones, Josh Gad, Mo Rocca, Rob and Nate Corddry (the former pretending to have forgotten the latter’s existence), and Bassem Youssef crowded into the show’s first half. They were overshadowed by correspondents — from Steve Carell to John Oliver — that now occupy a position in popular culture comparable to but different from, and in some cases equal to, Stewart’s.

One of the more intriguingly generous aspects of the farewell was how it encouraged Stewart’s most famous finds to remind us of how different they were from Stewart, and how in certain cases they’d taken specific elements of their experience on The Daily Show and achieved things that were just as notable in their own right.

Former correspondent and incoming Daily Show host Trevor Noah moseyed into the background and measured Stewart’s desk, then his dick; his affable insolence seemed to promise that he’d carry on in the Stewart tradition, without necessarily trying to emulate his style as a host. Wilmore, who went from A-list sitcom producer to “Hey, it’s Larry Wilmore!”–level fame after his stint as the show’s “senior black correspondent,” sidled up to Stewart’s desk to chastise him for bumping his own series The Nightly Show — only eight months old and already a must-see — from its regular time slot.

Steve Carell crowded into a virtual class photo of correspondents pretending to be in Cleveland covering the second GOP presidential-candidate debate, and sarcastically intoned that he’d never left The Daily Show but had merely interrupted his stint there to become “an international superstar.” Carell was understating his accomplishments; on The Office and in a spate of comedic and dramatic film roles, he has explored every imaginable facet of the deadpan he honed on The Daily Show, and proved that he’s not just a great clown, but an actor of substance. Ed Helms, who looked great and made sure we knew it, popped in to tilt his Fred Gwynne face and grin like an actor who went from “Who’s that guy?” to name-above-the-title in the space of about ten years. Another Stewart find, John Oliver, the host of HBO’s consistently excellent Last Week Tonight, bragged about how his blatantly Daily Show–derived series lets segments run longer than Comedy Central would ever allow. “What the fuck is a commercial?” he demanded. “You’re talking madness, boy!”

Former correspondent Stephen Colbert, who gave one of the greatest sustained put-on performances in TV history as the right-wing host of The Colbert Report and went on to replace David Letterman as the host of CBS’s The Late Show, asserted his own, considerable clout by going off-script (or maybe he’s just so convincing that he made it seem like he was going off-script). He thanked Stewart for giving everyone else in the business an example of how to be consistently excellent and focused over a long span of time. In case you were worried that things would get overly sappy, he also described himself as “the son of a poor Appalachian turd miner.”

The rest of the show felt like an unsteady victory lap by a program so drunk on adulation that it had lost the will to demonstrate the qualities Colbert praised. An extended Goodfellas-styled tracking shot through Daily Show headquarters (actually more Russian Ark–styled, for the 11 Alexander Sokurov fans reading this) was more strenuous than amusing, although the inevitable Scorsese cameo was pitched just right (Scorsese never gets enough credit for his sense of humor). Stewart’s introduction of three guys nicknamed “Beardy McPlaid” was such a good self-deprecating joke on the show’s trust-fund boho whiteness that it nearly balanced out the awkwardness of an earlier bit between the host and former correspondent Wyatt Cenac. Cenac had described Stewart, during a recent Marc Maron podcast, as reacting with hostile defensiveness after Cenac called him out for “naïve, ignorant” racism. Last night, Cenac was “reporting” from a block away from the studio. When Stewart asked if he planned on stopping by, he said he was thinking about it. Then they traded variants of Maron’s pet phrase, “We good?”

Yes, the final “bullshit” monologue was instantly quotable, but also disingenuous; a host who cultivated such close relationships with politicians he admired shouldn’t hold himself up as a beacon of rational detachment. Plus, George Carlin’s “American Bullshit” routine is better written and a lot angrier and more daring — and I bet if you pressed Stewart, who was mentored by Carlin, he’d agree.

But what’s the point of micro-critiquing what was essentially a star-packed office party with a killer band? None. An era is over. The king has abdicated his throne. As Colbert pointed out when Stewart mock-warned him against going off-script, “You can’t stop anyone, because they don’t work for you anymore.”

What’s next for Stewart? Second acts are always hard, especially when the first act went on as long, and had as profound a transformative effect on TV, as Stewart’s 16 years fronting The Daily Show. His legacy is deep and multifaceted, and we’re too close to accurately judge it. Some of the claims that have recently been made for Stewart — such as the notion that he taught millennials how to think — seem so wildly extravagant on their face it’s probably best to chalk them up to grief management in the run-up to the Daily Show finale. (I can see how he’d be a beacon of ironic skepticism for Americans who were in middle and high school during the aughts; David Letterman filled that role for me during the Reagan years.)

Nevertheless, I’m betting that 10 or 15 years down the road, when Congressman Stewart is insisting to yet another reporter that he never actually ruled out politics as a career, we’ll still be watching Oliver and Colbert in some form, and maybe Noah, if he plays his cards right, and marveling at how many credits Schaal and Munn and the Corddrys and Gad and Black (if he’s not rendered literally mute from apoplexy) have racked up. Carell probably will have won an Oscar by then, or abandoned showbiz entirely to devote himself to autism fund-raising. And maybe Wilmore will be signing off The Nightly Show in a farewell broadcast packed with stars who were sent to the principal’s office in 2015 for making fun of their teachers.