Since Jon Stewart started hosting “The Daily Show” 16 years ago, the country’s trust in the news media and the government has plummeted.
On Thursday night 10 presidential candidates will spill onto a stage in Cleveland, and the crowded Republican primary race will begin in earnest with the first day of debates, live on Fox News.
The perfect Jon Stewart moment.
But Stewart won’t be around to skewer the participants. A couple of hours earlier, in New York City, he will have already taped his final show.
The timing is coincidental, but meaningful: Stewart has spent his career as host of the “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central having a field day with politicians (many of them Republican), outlandish billionaires (including Donald Trump) and cable-news stations (Fox News in particular).
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Since Stewart started hosting “The Daily Show” 16 years ago, the country’s trust in the news media and the government has plummeted. Stewart’s brand of fake news thrived in that vacuum, and turned him into one of the nation’s most bracing cultural, political and media critics.
With his over-the-top presentation of the news — his arms swinging wildly, his eyes bulging with outrage, followed by a shake of the head and a knowing smile — Stewart attracted a generation of viewers ready to embrace an outlier whose exaggerations, in their view, carried more truth than conventional newscasts.
“He made the position what it was and he was smart and talented enough to imagine what this could be,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., himself a former performer on “Saturday Night Live,” said in an interview. “It evolved very quickly under his leadership and used the format of fake news to talk about everything and anything, and do it brilliantly.”
When Stewart took over Comedy Central’s late-night slot, replacing Craig Kilborn, the show was on a little-watched cable network, with about 350,000 viewers a night. That number grew year after year, and at its height, in the 2008-09 season, it drew 1.6 million viewers a night, many of them young and left-leaning.
Stewart was far from a universally loved figure. His viewership, though a boon for Comedy Central, was much smaller than that of the network late-night shows. A Pew Research poll said there were nearly as many viewers who distrusted it as those who trusted it, and there was a significant divide among the liberals who craved it and conservatives who loathed it. Critics, even on the left, said he could come off as pompous and self-righteous.
Still, the show’s relentless focus on political news, and the amount of time Stewart, who is not granting interviews before his departure, would devote to a certain topic each night, made him an object of fascination, especially among the news media.
“I think Stewart has it both ways,” said Jeff Greenfield, a longtime TV news reporter. “He says he’s just a comedian, but he’s more than a comedian, and I think he knows that. I spent three decades-plus doing network news, but if you ask me today, what do I pay more attention to, John Oliver and Jon Stewart or the evening newscast, it’s not close. I get much more out of Oliver and Stewart when he’s cooking than I do out of those formulaic 22-minute newscasts.”
“There are a lot of journalists who watch Stewart and envy the freedom he has,’‘ Greenfield added. “You can’t go on television when you’re a journalist and say, ‘Sen. X is a baldfaced liar.’’’
The show’s producers and writers knew they had that in their favor. The show’s popularity started to gain steam during the 2000 election, said Madeleine Smithberg, a creator of “The Daily Show,” especially in the monthlong drama after the election that led to the Bush v. Gore decision. “We moved into the forefront in everybody’s mind and everyone was watching us because we were the only ones who could call it for what it actually was,” Smithberg said.
By that point, Stewart had been host for two years and was zeroing in on the show’s identity, a significant departure from his predecessor Kilborn, who was a former sports anchor.
“The show certainly had not found itself by the time Craig had left,” said Lewis Black, comedian and longtime “Daily Show” contributor who worked with both hosts. “The pieces were in place, but it needed somebody to guide the ship in. Jon really became that person.”
As that was happening, “South Park” was becoming a hit in its own right, and Comedy Central began to take off.
“What Jon did was put us into the national conversation and put us into the zeitgeist and the front page,” said Doug Herzog, president of the Viacom Music and Entertainment group.
It’s a platform that has turned Stewart’s little-known replacement, Trevor Noah, 31, into an overnight celebrity. And the show has likewise minted many stars, including Stephen Colbert, who is replacing David Letterman next month; Oliver, who now has his own show on HBO; Steve Carell; Ed Helms; Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee.
There have been many milestones: Stewart’s coverage of the Bush White House; the show’s best-selling book, “America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction”; his confrontations with CNBC’s Jim Cramer and his feuds with Fox News (Stewart revisited that topic on the show Monday night, after Fox News accused him of being too cozy with the Obama administration because he had visited the president at the White House).
In 2010, Stewart and Colbert organized a gathering that attracted thousands in Washington, the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” in response to conservative commentator Glenn Beck and the growing tea-party movement. That same year, his determined advocacy of a bill to provide aid to 9/11 responders was widely cited as the reason it passed through Congress.
There are signs, however, that the show’s best days are behind it. It has had a declining audience for three straight years, and its average for total viewers this season is about 1.35 million, its lowest since 2005. The viewership in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, at 725,000 viewers a night, is at its lowest in 11 years, according to data from Nielsen.
Herzog, of Viacom, took issue with the figures, arguing that including viewers who were watching parts of his show online, “Jon’s probably more impactful than ever.”
Black said Stewart may have benefited most from the news events that marked his tenure, from the Bush administration to the wars in the Middle East to the rise of 24-hour news channels and the emergence of Barack Obama and the tea party.
“The show gained its power not just from Jon and not just from the writers of the show, but also the time frame in which it occurred,” Black said.
“He would turn out every day and do something that would provide people a certain amount of insulation from the madness we’re bombarded with from the moment we wake up,” he continued. “Whether someone is bombing this place or someone is shooting someone, or some senator said something so profoundly beyond human comprehension that one would consider it fictional if one didn’t know this was a real person. But laughter? Laughter allows you to say, ‘Ah! I am not a part of this,’ and you disengage for a moment.”