Stephen Colbert’s last episode of “The Colbert Report” ended with a cavalcade of celebrity guest stars, an obscure ‘40s crooner that only the real Colbert would know, and a send off not to Stephen Colbert but to “Stephen Colbert”. His gathering of guests sang “We’ll meet again some sunny day”, full well knowing Colbert’s bright future. Meanwhile, the Stephen Colbert character departed our world in the only way that was fitting for such an amalgam on television: climbing into Santa’s sleigh and sailing off into the moonlight with Alex Trebek, only before throwing back to Jon Stewart to reveal that the entire series run of “The Colbert Report” was actually Stephen on assignment for “The Daily Show”.
For one of TV’s most egocentric characters, the Colbert finale was all about him, with a knowing wink that even the fake Stephen Colbert owes everything to his nemesis Jon Stewart, and it was perfect.
For Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show” has never been about him. It’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and soon it will be “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”, as weird as that now sounds. So for Jon Stewart, the only way he could really end was to make it a show for everyone else.
The finale was self-deprecating, it was honest straight-talk, it was a celebration of the enormous cast and crew who have rocketed to comedic and dramatic stardom because of Stewart, and it all felt important. In addition to a goofy role call of his correspondents performing corny, scripted shtick, he also assembled a long line of politicians and pundits glad to give him the heave-ho (Bill O’Reilly has a great line, but my personal favorite has to be Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “Who has 9 ½ fingers and won’t miss you one bit? This guy!).
But he also found time for one last trip to Camera 3, speaking candidly with a thesis that could serve the last 16 years: Bullshit. Unlike Colbert’s meta parody and Jon Oliver’s in-depth journalism, Stewart broke down the bullshit every night on his show by scrutinizing the media and Washington. He deconstructed the mounds of bullshit that kept the world full of outrage. In 2010 he held his Rally to Restore Sanity but never needed to restore anything because “The Daily Show” already was a bedrock of sanity. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something,” Stewart said in his final monologue.
Stewart also gave David Letterman and Foo Fighters a run for their money by recruiting, who else, The Boss. Despite the shorter length of his tenure, Stewart really is an institution of comedy as much as Letterman, but the thing about Stewart is that he’ll never admit it.
Because most importantly about the finale, Stewart was trying so hard to be humble. Colbert took over the reins from Stewart and made him sit and listen to praise, despite his squirming in his chair, saying, “You said to me never to thank you because we owe you nothing… We owe you because we learn from you. You were infuriatingly good at your job.”
For me, losing Colbert and Letterman and now Stewart all in under a calendar year was like a premature blow to my nostalgia. Stewart and Colbert in particular were a fixture of my college experience. Whether or not what I was watching was news, I learned about the world and gained a real perspective on everything from politics to culture to media.
For a decade Stewart has been downplaying “The Daily Show’s” influence on people’s lives. In fact, one of the most telling episodes of Stewart’s opinion of the show’s legacy came not in the finale but in his penultimate episode. Despite his nightly “eviscerations” of every major institution, things have arguably only gotten worse and more polarized since he took the air, with only the Mets’ first place standings to show for his hard work.
But even if FOX News still holds unbelievable sway, and even if no one has been held accountable for the financial crisis, and even if Arby’s is still in business, Jon Stewart’s real impact lies in more of Stephen Colbert’s last words: “All of us who got to work with you for the last 16 years got better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people for having known you.”