August 7, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”


Losing both David Letterman and Jon Stewart in a single TV year is more than a viewing public should have to endure, but tonight it was Stewart’s turn to walk through the exit door of THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART after 16 years on the air, a run that changed the very concept of what “influential” could mean for TV comedy.

Although Stewart’s and Letterman’s respective legends both stem from NY-based late-night talk shows, and at times they’ve had overlapping moments of prominence–notably when they were among the first and most vital pop culture figures to deal with the aftermath of 9/11–their approaches have for the most part been polar opposites.  Letterman is an absurdist who brilliantly dissected the traditional elements of “late-night talk show” and reconfigured them into something that reflected a vision that was almost abstract.  Letterman told topical jokes every night, but it’s instructive that the only time one can really remember him engaging with a politician was when John McCain had the temerity to cancel an appearance without a good excuse.  Letterman’s approach revolutionized mainstream comedy, but Stewart has been even more daring:  he exposed absurdity in politics and the media rather than embracing it, with the ferocity of a born muckraker, and in the process turned TV news parody into actual TV news.  The surprise isn’t that a significant part of an entire generation came to adopt The Daily Show as its substitute for network journalism, but that the show actually earned every bit of it.

Stewart has always adamantly sworn that he considers himself just a comedian, and he’s in no way above making fart and dick jokes mixed with funny faces, but he’s also been passionately engaged with real issues.  He has a gift for advocacy that the politicians he’s covered could envy, and a remarkable ability to combine righteous fury with absolute clarity (and, of course, humor), masterfully producing 7-minute segments that condense some of the most crazily complicated issues in the modern world with a passionate point of view and a full supply of belly-laughs, managing to be hilarious yet not reductive.   He’s frequently grilled his politician guests more strongly than the interviewers at the 24-hour news channels he often ridiculed ever would.  Although he’s always pooh-poohed any idea that he’s a figure of political influence, there’s no real question that he’s managed to be both a functioning comedian and a major figure in contemporary journalism, a setter of agendas.

Tonight’s finale was, as these things typically are, more of a ceremony than an episode.  The epic first act, which Comedy Central allowed to run for half an hour without commercials, showcased another aspect of Stewart’s extraordinary tenure:  the astonishing trove of talent he’s picked to appear on the show, an eye for star quality second only to Lorne Michaels’ in the annals of contemporary comedy.  Just about everyone who’s ever appeared on The Daily Show as a contributor returned (even including Wyatt Cinac, who gave Stewart the only blotch on his victory lap with some recently podcasted recollections), building to two of the most impressive representatives of his legacy, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, the latter of whom broke Stewart’s composure by going off-script to deliver thanks for all Stewart had done.  The next segment was a Goodfellas parody (complete with a Scorsese cameo) that pretended to showcase every member of the behind-the-scenes Daily Show staff in a single unbroken shot, although as in Birdman, there were some digital tricks behind the sequence.  Stewart’s final monologue followed, and as a parting gift Comedy Central didn’t cut off the sound for his chosen subject matter, the bullshit that surrounds us all.  Finally, Jersey boy Stewart had his own moment of zen, a mini-concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band that ended with everyone dancing to “Born to Run.”

It may well be that of all the replacements who have recently ascended to late-night posts, Trevor Noah (who made his own brief appearance in the finale) has the most formidable shoes to fill:  no one expects Stephen Colbert to duplicate what David Letterman did, but The Daily Show is now a public trust as much as a comedy talk-show, its host required to provide not just a constant stream of laughs, but a cohesive view of the world and a consistent source of political insight.  Noah has until September 28 to figure out just how to make that happen.  (At least in the short term, he’s keeping on much of the current Daily Show staff, which should help.)

As for Stewart himself, he can pretty much do whatever he wants next.  Tonight he spoke of his hiatus as merely a pause in his continuing conversation with audiences, and considering that he’s 15 years younger than David Letterman, no one expects to have seen the last of him.  Stewart’s filmmaking debut with Rosewater was greeted more with respect than enthusiasm, but he’ll certainly have another chance if he chooses to.  His recent appearance at a NY comedy club suggests that he’s ready to make some kind of return to stand-up.  Any television network or streaming service would kill to have him as part of their programming.  And although he’s always dismissed any suggestion of entering real-life politics, Senator Al Franken is living proof that a comedy background is no disqualification from elected office (and Stewart is probably an even more marketable candidate).  For now, though, while he decides what move to make, we’ll just have to accept his extended moment of zen.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."