Critic’s Notebook: Nobody punctures blowhards better than Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’

"The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Less than two months after the departure of Stephen Colbert and the “The Colbert Report” and three weeks following the premiere of Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show,” Jon Stewart, the man whose success made those shows possible, announced his retirement from “The Daily Show.”

Stewart has been hosting “The Daily Show” since 1999, when he replaced original host Craig Kilborn. In that time he, his writers, his producers and sundry phony correspondents have changed the way we think about politics, comedy, comedy in politics and politics in comedy.

In the bargain, they’ve offered a critique of media at a time when the media have seemed in special need of critiquing. A pointed stick in age of bloviation, the show even targeted itself when appropriate.


FULL COVERAGE: Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ and beyond

In doing so, Stewart made life a little more bearable for millions. Stewart has been a voice of astonishment and outrage, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes heartfelt and often both — a safety valve, a tonic at the end of the latest hard day, comforting confirmation that you are not the only person to find the world out of joint.

And just so, there are those of us who will wonder how we will get through those days without him, so personally identified has he become with the process of puncturing the blowhards and calling out the hypocrites.

Indeed, his departure feels more epochal than the suspension (temporary or otherwise) of Brian Williams, also announced Tuesday. I don’t mean to imply that Stewart’s job is harder, but he will be harder to replace.

Perhaps, I mean only that I will miss him more. His funny faces and voices, his white-heat energy that reminded me at times of nothing so much as Kermit the Frog running “The Muppet Show.”

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We need comedy — that is, some of us do — to make sense of an absurd world. Some face it by submitting to religious or political orthodoxies, or by adopting a deadly self-seriousness. (The opposition of these attitudes is the story, partly, of Charlie Hebdo.)

Humor spurns ideology: It reports to the facts. It’s a game of logic that lives in the spaces where logic breaks down.

On the right, “The Daily Show” has been seen as a voice of the deep, even radical left. But for many viewers it is a voice of essentially centrist sanity.

Political satire takes aim at power. To ignore the follies of a team you might favor produces the sort of torturous bad reasoning purveyed by radio pundits and cable news hosts, just as partisanship weakens comedy. And, as he has often protested, Stewart has been first and last a comedian, and out front about it. His beef with Fox News is based more than anything on the fact that they misrepresent what they do.

Comedy Central issued a statement that there will continue to be a “Daily Show,” which I take to mean that something resembling Stewart’s program will occupy the 11 p.m. slot. The critic’s game of guessing who might host it began as soon as the news — not even the news, the rumor — of his impending retirement hit the Internet.

The wish lists have ranged further than candidates who would be likely to take the job, even were it offered, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer. The speculation responds to a desire to see a little diversity make its way into late night (or a little more diversity, given at least, and uniquely, the African American Wilmore), though the fact that Stewart is Jewish already makes him an anomaly.

Stewart is, demonstrably, not the only comic capable of hosting such a show, but it’s a job that requires something more than good timing — a lively interest in the political world. It requires not just being able to read lines, but to be inside them and to know enough about whatever subject is at hand to go beyond them.

Good comedy is informed comedy — even if you’re affecting stupidity, you have to come at it from a place of knowledge. This is why there are no funny climate-change deniers.

Programs like “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “The Nightly Show,” and “Daily Show” alumnus John Oliver’s HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” are the enemies of ignorance, of half-baked ideas, cant, alarmism and superstition.

He’s done the job for 16 years, through four presidential election cycles and administrations Republican and Democrat. It is not impossible that the thought of committing fully to one more election was too much to bear, given the likelihood of it being low and bloody and notwithstanding the great material it will afford.

But in announcing his departure, scheduled loosely for sometime later this year, he said only that he had grown “restless” and that he had “a lot of ideas, a lot of things in my head. I’m gonna have dinner. On a school night. With my family. Who I have heard, from multiple sources, are lovely people.”

Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd


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