I’m going to level with you all straight off—I don’t watch The Daily Show very often. It’s not that I don’t like it, because in fact I like it quite a bit. It’s just that I’m a deranged 21st-century Internet addict who would rather lose a limb than set any kind of routine, ever. There’s no way I’m watching any kind of television program on a fixed schedule, and The Daily Show isn’t really the kind of thing you want to download and binge-watch later. So despite the fact that Jon Stewart and all his correspondents and all his graphics people are hilarious and brilliant, and he’s directly responsible for the two smartest spin-off news shows ever made, I’ve never been a die-hard fan.
UNTIL, THAT IS, ELECTION SEASON.
Sorry for the caps and bold, but I feel strongly about this. Jon Stewart is so goddamn good during presidential elections, and I don’t think I’m going to survive the next year and change without him. By November 2016, I’m confident that I’ll be reduced to a lifeless husk, and it’s all his fault.
I mean, that’s over a year from now, and the truth is that from the moment I started caring about presidential elections, starting with Bush v. Gore, my experience has been defined by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. Stewart took over The Daily Show the year before that presidential election, and quickly turned what had been a silly diversion into vital commentary on the media and our political process. That wast he moment when he came into his own as the voice of a generation, and TDS became something more than a half hour of comedy with a vaguely political theme.
It’s also when I started viewing politics as more than a meaningless distraction. In a sense, it’s like we started our political lives together, and we’ve been more or less happy ever since. I showed my loyalty by tuning in every four years, and Stewart kept me sane in the bad times, elated in the good times, and entertained always. The dude was automatic.
Can we just get one thing out of the way? Trevor Noah is going to suck. I feel bad for saying that, and I feel bad for all the crap he had to endure from the Internet Outrage Brigade because he had the audacity to be a comedian before he joined The Daily Show as a correspondent, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s going to suck. And I don’t mean he won’t be kinda funny, or that there’s anything inherently wrong with Trevor Noah, but nobody is going to live up to Jon Stewart. He was the perfect host for the perfect show, and the only person that could have followed him successfully was John Oliver. Even Colbert, who found his own perfect format after his time with Stewart and became one of Comedy Central’s co-icons (and arguably the funnier of the two), couldn’t have pulled off The Daily Show’s straighter format—he needed to parody a conservative talking head.
Colbert is actually a great model for what will happen after Stewart. Quick, name Colbert’s successor!
Did you get “Larry Wilmore”? Even if you did, I have a new challenge: Google Wilmore and try to find a story about him that wasn’t published in January, when The Nightly Show premiered in Colbert’s old time slot. It seems like there’s a consensus among online media to politely ignore his modest failure, and in the few places where you can find recent opinions, like IMDB or Reddit, the reviews are not great. (And it wasn’t any better when I posed the question on Twitter.)
I’ve only watched Larry Wilmore a few times, and didn’t love it, but I would also argue that following Colbert was its own special kind of death sentence—how can you live up to that kind of comedic genius? The same is true for Stewart, which is why I’m pretty confident predicting doom and gloom for Noah.
What does this mean for me, the occasional viewer? Well, it means that I won’t have a substitute for the year-long election cycle shitshow that’s about to unfold. I won’t have Stewart’s uncanny ability to demonstrate the absurdity of our political process, and to point out all the reasons we should be enraged, while still prioritizing the comedy. I won’t have the guy who can embody the bitterness and disenchantment young American lefties like myself feel without seeming bitter or disenchanted himself. I won’t have the guy who lifts me up from the darkness of despair to remind me that the human condition is one of suffering and corruption, and that it’s more than okay—it’s actually kinda funny.
That’s what I’ll be missing. And where can I turn? I refuse to watch MSNBC, which operates under the assumption that all liberals in this country need is something as dumb and reactionary as Fox News, but on our side of the political spectrum. I refuse to watch an inferior version of Stewart. I’ll get my dose of John Oliver once a week, but that’s not nearly enough.
It leaves me in dire straits, and all I can guess is that this time, I probably won’t survive. The election is going to bury me in a pit of hopelessness, which will eventually transform into rage (I’ll be one of those annoying political people on Facebook) and then ennui (I’ll eat too much and just nod dumbly when my wife asks if I plan to get off the couch this week) and then complete psychosis (I’ll get arrested for running around naked screaming “Jon shall return! Jon shall return!”).
And, by the way, this is going to happen to you too. Stewart was our lifeline, our safety net, and our little arm floaties in a turbulent sea. Without him, we’re all going to drown.
In advance of our inevitable fall from grace, let’s take one last nostalgic look back at the Stewart elections that have defined my political life—and yours too.
2000: Bush v. Gore
I was two months shy of 18 when the 2000 election rolled around, and I’m so glad about that, because if I had been able to vote, I would have voted for Bush. If you can put aside your disgust after reading that sentence, I hope you realize the bravery it took to write, because it’s probably the most shameful secret in my life (aside from all the shameful sex stuff). I grew up listening to WABC radio for Yankee games, and when they were over, Sean Hannity would come on the air and poison my brain until I fell asleep. I also had a stepfather who is a very nice man but a staunch conservative, and so I was brainwashed.
Even in this malformed political state, I recognized the hilarity in “Indecision 2000,” and knew that Stewart was a great comedian…even if I didn’t agree with his politics. (That sound you heard was my moan of shame carrying through the computer.) That was also the point when The Daily Show became an institution, as you’ll know if you’ve read literally any Jon Stewart tribute this week. Even among high-schoolers in the far reaches of upstate New York, I remember his name spreading through the hallways—at least among the few of us who cared about politics.
He was even better in the aftermath, when the electoral college was exposed as a bad joke. Nobody cut to the heart of the bullshit better than Stewart, and you could argue that while the election brought him into the national limelight, the fallout in Florida cemented his place.
2004: Bush v. Kerry
This was the cycle when John Edwards, the morally bereft Democrat from North Carolina, announced his candidacy on The Daily Show. We didn’t know the depth of his moral bereftness at that point, so it gave a sort of clout to both Stewart and his show that only affirmed the quality and intelligence of his political commentary.
It felt like synchronicity for me, because I was also in North Carolina by that point. Politically speaking, the Iraq War knocked some sense into me, and after spending two years watching conservatives at my school post ecstatic away messages like “Bombs over Baghdad!” as people died, I was more than ready to fall in line with Stewart. I even registered to vote in North Carolina, because I thought it would matter more than a New York vote. (I guess I was right, kinda?)
I, like many others, was severely depressed about the outcome of Bush v. Kerry, and I can still remember the acute pain of election night. My friend Chris and I, who cared more than anybody else I knew, watched on my couch, and when the nightmare crystallized, there was only one move we could make—we switched to The Daily Show. Nobody else was treating the result like the tragedy we felt it to be, and there was comfort in watching Stewart give his elegy to our year-long hopes.
We were melodramatic college kids, but this truly felt like the death of hope in America, and nobody embodied those feelings—and still, somehow, made us laugh—like Stewart.
2008: Obama v. McCain
Hope, of course, was not dead. I know in my heart that I will never experience the same optimism, and ecstasy, that I felt in the lead-up to the 2008 election. Finally, the Democrats had a candidate we could feel good about. Obama briefly drained the cynicism from our political outlook, and even someone like me, who has trouble engaging in even the slightest non-selfish behavior, was moved to cross state lines, from New York City to Pennsylvania, to volunteer at a phone bank.
Today, I find myself theorizing that Stewart laid the groundwork for Obama in some critical way. Maybe that’s a stretch, but the one thing that’s beyond doubt is that he had already galvanized the left—even as Gore and Kerry ran very uninspiring campaigns that ultimately failed. It’s no coincidence that “Stewart for President!” was a kind of liberal rally cry in those days—he was the only one saying what we knew to be true, and we related to him in a way that Gore and Kerry could never understand or recreate. Obama could—it’s not like he could afford to be as funny as Stewart, but the relatable quality, and the bold spirit, were very familiar. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that at least with a certain demographic, Obama stood on Stewart’s shoulders.
We watched the election coverage in the East Village, at a bar with a projector and a screen, and before the final result, before strangers were hugging each other all across the city, before the next morning when I couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere, our eyes were tuned to one man: Jon Stewart.
2012: Obama v. Romney
Four years later, those of us who came of age politically with the Kerry tragedy and the Obama triumph had realized that things don’t change quite as easily as we wanted to believe. Despite significant gains, Obama found himself enmired in the same political swamps of his predecessors—the boggy ground that even the most aspirational politicians can’t avoid. To accomplish anything, he had to make compromises that couldn’t help but deflate the almost fanatical belief held by his 2008 supporters. Our idealism had died a slow, four-year death, but it was still obvious to those of the leftist persuasion that it mattered that he beat Romney.
As always, Stewart was there, reflecting our state of mind. By then, he’d become an expert at mocking the media coverage of politics by other outlets—shallow, sensational, and stupid—and the attacks were bipartisan. They joined politicians as viable targets, and nobody was spared. In that way, he captured our own disillusionment with an entire system, top to bottom. It still felt like a relief when Obama won his second term, but you could read our sense of fatigue in Stewart’s own body language, and we understood—this was like a stay of execution.
Today, it makes complete sense that Stewart is calling it quits. He went through our same cycle: Shock (the Bush controversy) to despair (Kerry’s loss) to hope (Obama Part 1), to hope evaporating (Obama Part 2), to our current state of renewed cynicism.
What does it mean to be a progressive in the current election cycle? It means that only one candidate, Bernie Sanders, says what we want to hear, but we’ve reached the collective conclusion that he can’t win. So we’re rowing in behind Hillary Clinton, who nobody in their right minds really likes or trusts, but who, maybe, has enough money and infrastructure to beat Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or whichever fringe lunatic emerges from the GOP primary. It’s essentially like voting for Wal-Mart over Enron, but we can’t bring ourselves to do anything different, because we don’t believe in the same way that we did as recently as 2008.
So what can Stewart say that’s new? We’ve been here before, and we’re worse for the wear. He’s getting old, and so are we, and after the highs and lows of the past 16 years, the only thing we really understand is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Stewart has served his time, but he’s leaving at the right moment—another year of this shit would just be redundant.
I get that. But where does that leave the rest of us? With the hope of Trevor Noah? With Colbert probably neutered as a late-night host? With Oliver sending us dispatches from the wilds of HBO once per week? With the pseudo-liberal clowns of MSNBC, or the vapid talking heads on CNN, or the angry old white men on Fox News when we need to hate-watch?
It’s not enough. It’s not even close. Stewart’s departure will leave a political void that looks exactly like the one the rest of us are sensing in the country at large. Nothing about it—nothing—feels good. So we’ll hunker down, Jon, and we’ll do our best in a bad situation. But most of all, we’ll miss you.