Last week, fans of political comedy were given a rare treat: a public appearance by Jon Stewart. Stewart appeared at a live taping of David Axelrod’s podcast, The Axe Files, and gave us his take on Donald Trump (spoiler alert: he’s not a fan). He also expressed some not-so-positive opinions about Hillary Clinton, which were a bit controversial among Stewart’s liberal fan base. Still, no matter what you made of what Stewart had to say, it was great just to see him again. Since his departure in August, it’s hard not to feel like there’s a bit of a void in the comedy world, even with so many other great political satirists working today, nearly all of whom got there start as Daily Show correspondents.
In the nine months since Stewart’s final episode, politics has been even more ridiculous than usual. Donald Trump has essentially proven himself unbreakable, while we’ve also seen the goofy, sleepy antics of Dr. Ben Carson, and Jeb “Please Clap” Bush. As all of this has gone on, it’s been difficult not to wonder what Stewart would have made of all this. When we recall his surgical, detailed takedowns of Fox News, the thought of watching him go off on the never-ending oddity that is the Trump campaign makes us smile, and it can’t help but seem like he went off the air at the worst possible time.
But while missing Jon Stewart is natural, and there’s something a bit of a void in the comedy world without him, it’s worth asking: just how big is that void? The answer may depend on what aspect of Jon Stewart we’re talking about. If we’re talking about Jon Stewart, the individual, oh yeah, he is sorely missed. I miss his impressions. I miss his self-deprecating bits. I miss “meet me at camera three.” If we were listing all the little things that made Jon Stewart’s Daily Show so charming, we’d be here all day.
That being said, if we’re talking about Jon Stewart, the satirist who affects our political discourse, one must ask, is the void without him really that large? Put it this way: are there things that Jon Stewart could say about Donald Trump or the election as a whole that aren’t being said by the seemingly endless number of former Daily Show correspondents who currently have their own shows? Look at Stewart’s comments on Axelrod’s podcast; they basically amount to “Trump is an immature arrogant jerk, and making him President would be a bad idea.” All perfectly valid points, but you can hear Larry Wilmore or Samantha Bee make them now already. Stewart’s comments about Trump were funny, in the way Stewart commenting on pretty much anything is funny, but it’s not like he really said anything that hasn’t been said countless times since Trump entered the race last June.
This might seem like a critique of Stewart, but really, the fact that American political satire is still fully operational without its captain is actually a credit to what Jon Stewart was able to build. During his 16 years on The Daily Show, an endless number of correspondents came through and honed their skills until they became ready for bigger and better things. Some of those people became film stars, like Steve Carell and Ed Helms, but many of them went on and created their own shows. Here is the complete list of former Daily Show correspondents who currently have their own television program: Larry Wilmore, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver. Oh, and there’s also Michael Che, who co-anchors Weekend Update with Colin Jost. These people all were able develop their voices while working at The Daily Show. Essentially, political satire is operating just fine without Jon Stewart, and the person we have to thank for that is Jon Stewart.
The counter-argument, of course, would be that while there’s a ton of shows featuring political humor, none of them can match Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in terms of pure essentialness. That’s where it gets tricky; I’ll be the first to admit that while I watch and enjoy all of these shows on a regular basis, I don’t quite have the same “I-need-to-watch-this-right-now” feeling that I used to have for Stewart. The thing is, that might not actually be the fault of the shows themselves. Rather, it might be a simple result of the ever-looming specter of Jon Stewart. Quite simply, he was there first. Not only was he the person who inspired many people, myself included, to care about politics, he basically invented this entire scene. The whole “fake news” show concept, while having roots in Weekend Update, really came out of Jon Stewart’s show, and for that reason, his show can’t help but feel like the most important. It might be hard not to view Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee’s shows as being not quite as essential, but if you give them a fair shake, they make a lot of the same points Stewart made for years, and they make them well.
Of course, none of this prevents me from missing the hell out Jon Stewart, and shouldn’t stop you from missing him either. Jon Stewart was America’s most important political satirist from 9/11 to August 6, 2015, when his final show aired. He was also an incredible likable, charming personality who was incredibly fun to spend a half an hour with. But Stewart’s absence doesn’t mean that political satire in America is suffering. On the contrary, his disciples have done a brilliant job of keeping the flame alive. Jon Stewart gave several talented young comics and satirists a chance to develop, and ultimately thrive. As a result, political satire is going strong as ever without him.