On Wednesday night, after taping his next-to-last Daily Show, Jon Stewart walked down a backstage hallway. “One more night!” he said, sounding gleeful and fatigued and slightly concerned about controlling his emotions. “Tomorrow night’s gonna be nuts!”
No doubt he’s right. But no matter what wackiness may occur during tonight’s special hour-long finale, one of the most remarkable things is that Stewart seems to be ending his 16-and-a-half-year run with his feet still firmly on the ground.
Then again, comedy and sanity have been on his mind for a long time. Back in 1993, Stewart was the host of a struggling talk show on MTV, and I was writing about him, and as we walked past West Fourth Street the conversation somehow turned to whether it was possible to be seriously funny and mentally well-balanced.
The great comics I’d met to that point were pretty twisted. Stewart, though, was strangely optimistic that laughs and levelheadedness could go together, even after the years he’d spent doing stand-up in clubs where he was paid partly in hummus.
A lot has changed in 23 years. His Comedy Central triumph has made Stewart famous, rich, and a liberal demigod. Certainly, he’s shown flaws along the way. Stewart could be self-righteous, as when he claimed CNN’s Crossfire was “hurting America.” According to Wyatt Cenac, a former Daily Show correspondent, Stewart was profane and defensive when challenged on racial issues in 2011. But given the longevity of The Daily Show and the personalities involved in the comedy business, Stewart has steered an even-keeled ship.
Maybe that’s largely because the world has given him and The Daily Show plenty of targets on which to vent any rage or neuroses. From the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential race and Florida recount to the war in Iraq to the failure of President Obama to close Guantánamo to the emergence of Candidate Trump, Stewart’s determination to call bullshit — and to back up his points with facts and goofy voices — was perfectly timed for the political and media age.
Stewart’s ability to stay in touch with reality while being summoned for “secret” meetings at the White House may also have something to do with his choice of heroes, particularly another Jersey guy who scuffled early in his career before rocketing to stardom. Both Stewart and Bruce Springsteen know they aren’t regular folks anymore, but they’ve managed to remember where they came from and what’s important — one of Stewart’s prime motivations for quitting is to spend more time with his young son and daughter.
“I do what I do because of Bruce Springsteen,” Stewart told the singer in 2009, when Springsteen appeared on The Daily Show for the first time. “You can make something better of yourself, but there’s no guarantee … But you know what? The joy of it is chasing that dream.”
The craziest thing, though, may be that Stewart has held onto his sanity and his optimism enough to realize that it’s time to find a new dream to chase.