The great Jon Stewart signs off tonight, the latest in what’s become the Year of the Long Good-byes. Stephen Colbert rang out 2014 by ending The Colbert Report in mid-December. Mad Men’s victory lap was split into two victorious half-laps, the first half airing in the spring of 2014 and the final batch wrapping up on May 17 of this year. A few days after that, on May 20, David Letterman hosted his last Late Show. Each of these, in their way, was a momentous, valedictory moment in the culture. And each was preceded by an extraordinarily protracted period of anticipation, reflection, and mourning for something that wasn’t yet gone. Because no one can simply say good-bye anymore. You have to announce that you’re going to say good-bye eventually — anywhere from six to 12 months from now. It’s like we’re all permanently stuck on a dock waving at an ocean liner that’s set to depart sometime next week.
Jon Stewart, for example, first announced he’d be leaving The Daily Show back on February 10. Then, two months later, on April 20, he announced when exactly he’d be leaving. Now, nearly four months after that, he’s finally signing off. And Stewart’s six-month farewell tour is relatively brief by current standards. Letterman announced his retirement on April 3, 2014, over a year before his actual retirement. AMC was so interested in elongating Mad Men’s home stretch that it took to airing teasers that announced Only two more episodes until the final episode! — which is to say, three more episodes. Colbert is a slightly different case, as he already had a new gig — replacing Letterman — waiting when his contract for The Colbert Report ended, and the span between his announcement of the date of his last show and his actual last show was a scant two months. Compare that to Derek Jeter’s 2014 final season, which came complete with a slogan, a logo, and custom-made commercials, and which felt so long that I’m not entirely sure it’s not still going on somewhere.
There are certainly practical contingencies at play in determining when to announce that the end is nigh. Once a decision is reached internally — staffs are notified, replacements considered and vetted — the likelihood of a leak makes a public announcement a logical, even necessary, step. And the attendant publicity around a finale is naturally something producers want to cash in on. Plus, we, the audience, get to enjoy a leisurely period of pre-adjustment to our impending loss, with ample time to reflect, assess, re-reflect, reassess, and hopefully come to terms. So with the long good-bye, everybody wins, right?
The drawback of this by-now-familiar cycle of mourning/assessment/reflection/acceptance/reassessment/a little more reflection/okay is it finally over? is that it can start to feel so drawn out as to drain the actual event, when it happens, of any significance. We’ve reversed the natural order of action and reaction. Typically, when someone dies, that’s when the mourning begins. But when a beloved figure leaves TV or an important show finally wraps up, by the time it happens we’re often exhausted by our own period of preparatory mourning. It’s like we’ve run through the entire Kübler-Ross scale of dealing with grief before anyone’s actually gone.
What’s more, this move toward protracted good-byes exacerbates our current cultural tendency to front-load every experience. We get more excited for trailers than for movies; we expend more energy guessing who’ll be cast in what than in assessing performances we’ve already seen; we’re more psyched to talk about books that have yet to come out than the ones sitting on our shelves right now. Speculation is the new appreciation. And once something’s opened, premiered, or been released, we’re already done with it. We’ve moved on to speculating about the next great spectacle on the horizon.
With extended finales like Letterman’s and Stewart’s, the long good-bye means we’re forced into pre-assessing what the end of something will mean to us long before the thing itself has ended. What will a post–Jon Stewart culture look like? Well, pretty soon we’ll know for sure. But by that point, we’ll likely no longer have any appetite to discuss it. How many considerations of Letterman’s legacy did you read before he actually retired? Now how many have you read, or even noticed, since?
It’s interesting that, in the music industry, some artists have fought back against this culture of leaks, speculation, and, yes, anticipation fatigue with a radical experiment: the surprise record release. You wake up one morning and — boom — Beyoncé’s dropped a whole new secret album, complete with videos. It’s a cultural act that, these days, seems not only shocking but truly subversive. When every event is beaten to death before it even occurs, one possible response is: Don’t tell anyone something is happening until it actually happens.
Now that we’ve seen the surprise debut, maybe it’s time for the surprise departure. No pomp, no victory lap, no announcements of an eventual good-bye. Just go. Could a celebrated TV show end by simply ending — air a final episode and only then announce there will be no more? Could a late-night host get away with signing off one night by saying, “And, oh, by the way, tonight is my very last show”? Of course not. But imagine if they did. We’d be talking about it for years afterward.