The Most Trusted Man in America is leaving the set.
The baby boomers had Walter Cronkite; the millennials have Jon Stuart Leibowitz, better known by his nom de comedy, Jon Stewart. The “Daily Show” anchor announced Tuesday that he would be leaving the program, which he’s helmed — with a short break — since 1999.
“Through his unique voice and vision, ‘The Daily Show’ has become a cultural touchstone for millions of fans and an unparalleled platform for political comedy that will endure for years to come,” Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless said in a statement.
On the one hand, Stewart will leave a gaping hole. On the other, the fake-news world he helped mold is far richer because of his work.
The pre-Stewart “Daily Show,” though it had the same fake-news concept as its base, was closer to something like “Weekend Update” or the old “Not Necessarily the News”: amusing but inch-deep, as much about pop culture as politics. Its host, Craig Kilborn, was a former ESPN hand, and he anchored the show like a sports guy, loose and with a Letterman-esque wink.
Stewart, on the other hand, was probably closer to what “Daily Show” creators Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg had in mind when they launched the program. Though he’d cut his teeth on standup and his own MTV comedy talk show, underneath he was a political junkie, using his comedy chops to get at the truth.
He reshaped “The Daily Show” in his image quickly, thanks to the 2000 presidential campaign and the September 11 attacks. By the time the George W. Bush administration had hit full swing — with a “war on terror” at home and abroad — Stewart was a man in full: equal parts court jester and Howard Beale, the “Network” anchorman and “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” who railed against injustice.
Beale usually ended his soliloquies in a dead faint. Stewart, though equally irritated and exasperated, never went that far; he usually just moaned at his desk.
There’s an old saying that if you scratch a cynic, you find a frustrated idealist. That was Stewart.
He railed against lawmakers who refused to fund health care for workers who developed ailments after cleaning up ground zero following September 11; against a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the “I can’t breathe” death of Eric Garner; against then-President George W. Bush’s “childrens do learn” gaffe during a speech on education.
Stewart’s traditional target was politics, but he saved his choicest jibes for the news media, especially cable news (Fox News, CNN and MSNBC were regular whipping boys). He actively disliked the shouting matches that pass for political discourse, especially during political campaigns. (And, these days, it’s always a political campaign.)
If anything, his opinion has only gotten firmer in the years since.
Stewart begged off when he was told about how trusted he was, as a 2009 Time magazine poll indicated. He was just a comedian, he would say; he tells jokes. But comedians have a way of addressing issues that omnipotent, detached news anchors cannot. In these absurd times, with 500 channels, a billion websites and vast universe of instant opinionating, it’s why Cronkite has given way to Stewart.
Stewart took a break in 2013 to write and direct a film, “Rosewater,” and since then it has seemed inevitable that he would leave the show. His contract is up in September, and though he talked about staying through 2016, nothing was set.
And the writing has been on the wall. His one-time heir apparent, Stephen Colbert — who started his character on “The Daily Show” and made him famous on his own “Colbert Report” — left to replace David Letterman. John Oliver did so well as Stewart’s replacement that he parlayed his stint into his own fine program, “Last Week Tonight.”
Larry Wilmore, who was Stewart’s “senior black correspondent” for several years, has gotten off to a strong start with “The Nightly Show,” which took the place of “The Colbert Report.”
Stewart had nothing left to prove. Not on “The Daily Show,” anyway. He saw it was time to move on.
His impact — through Colbert, Oliver, Wilmore and others — is undeniable. Stewart may be leaving, but his legacy will endure. Although without his distinctive voice, the 2016 presidential campaign may feel a little dull.