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'Daily Show With Jon Stewart' redefined TV success as a natural fit for social media

'Daily Show With Jon Stewart' redefined TV success as a natural fit for social media
Comedian Jon Stewart shouts to the crowd during the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Like an android that has achieved human consciousness, Jon Stewart is often discussed as if he were an emerging species, the first of his kind — a comedian who became a political force, an entertainer who often functioned as a journalist.

The notion that Stewart created a new genre hybrid isn't true, of course. Comedians have taken on political corruption, media manipulation and public softheadedness for decades, often in a mock journalistic way.

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But as the man who has graced a hundred "most influential" lists prepares to leave "The Daily Show" on Thursday night, it certainly feels true. Much of the departure coverage accepts this as true, which means Stewart is being celebrated by confusing emotion with fact — a human tendency he has been railing against for years.

This has become the meta-joke of the century.

If Stewart, and the many writers and performers of "The Daily Show," however, didn't invent journo-political satire, they perfected it. They did so and at a time when television was going through changes that seemed tailor-made for both the show's voice and format. Sociopolitical influence didn't make Stewart a next-generation entertainer; multiplatforming did.

Endlessly excerptable, "The Daily Show" with its short pointed rants and quick satiric sets was built for social media. Enjoyable in its entirety, it was even more powerful sliced and diced into fun-sized bits, held together by Stewart's impressive palette of exquisitely precise outrage. Amused, bemused, irate, horrified, he lived to point out all the dangerous, infuriating and occasionally hilarious absurdities that too often pass for politics and culture in America.

With a relatively small viewership, Stewart and his "Daily Show" team created a screen-to-screen model that would help redefine success in television. It became less about ratings and more about passion, and page hits.

When he took over "The Daily Show" in 1999, few watched the show, or Comedy Central, or basic cable. The Big Four networks still ruled, and everyone was too busy still watching "Friends," "Ally McBeal" and "Law and Order."

Stewart sharpened the show's political focus and, more important, his criticism of political coverage, particularly the relatively new Fox News. (Nothing gets you more media attention than attacking the media.) Having found his leitmotif — the deepening divide between left and right that was worrying politicians and electorate alike — Stewart called out idiocies on both sides and denounced the split itself.

"The Daily Show's" coverage of the 2000 and 2004 elections won Peabody Awards, and the lengthy Emmy streak began. A 2004 appearance on "Crossfire," in which Stewart accused the hosts of being "partisan hacks," only increased his visibility as a political commentator, a new vision of wonkish outrage for all those "West Wing" fans and, more important, their teenage children.

By the time the Big Four went into ratings free-fall and the fear of the new digital universe caused many to believe television was dead, Stewart and the "Daily Show" spinoff "The Colbert Report" found themselves anointed as the primary source of news for young people. True or not, it certainly made them the center of a whole other conversation, about Young Folk and their perceived shifting allegiance from flat-screen to smartphone.

So when cable television jump-started a TV renaissance, supported more by social media-connected superfans than big numbers, no one benefited more than Stewart, now drowning in Emmys.

Obviously, it wasn't just demographic shifts or technological logistics that made Stewart a star. His ability to be outraged yet humane, angry yet unfailingly good-humored, made him the perfect avatar.

"What is wrong with him?" Stewart bellowed during a recent diatribe against Donald Trump, thus giving voice to what many people feel about the nation's general state of affairs.

Indeed, it must be difficult for Stewart to leave the field when Trump is running for president. Or, indeed, as another election year looms.

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While the presidential race may be comedy catnip, Stewart's ability to resist its temptation is as emblematic of a recent trend as his show's success. The new model in television is to quit while you're ahead — before people are sick of you or, even worse, have forgotten that you're still on.

TV has always been built on ritual — same Bat time, same Bat channel — and as technology began to disrupt that linear order of things, other rites have emerged, none is as powerful or protracted as the increasingly baroque television farewell.

And, indeed, since his departure was announced in February, there have been approximately 7,683 articles addressing Stewart's legacy — he changed television! he changed politics! he restored sanity! he divided the nation! — just as if he were some sort of transcendent being rather than a comedian who has just finished up a very good run.

On the other hand, Stewart has fulfilled one of the fears we regularly express about new life forms. Alumnae of "The Daily Show," including Steve Carell, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal have moved on from the mother ship to stake out territory of their own. If their collective audience numbers are any indication, they are not yet in a position to take over the world.

At least, not until Stephen Colbert takes over CBS' "The Late Show" next month, and the invasion really begins.

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'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart'

Where: Comedy Central

When: 11 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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