After 16 years lampooning American politics and culture on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart had his final moment of Zen Thursday night.
In an hour-long farewell that kept the fake news to a minimum and the tears mostly (if not entirely) in check, Stewart received fond tributes from dozens of current and former correspondents and eager farewells from some of his most famous adversaries. Ever the Jersey boy, Stewart ended the night with a set by — who else? — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Stewart did his best to remain stoic throughout, but was clearly moved by a tribute from correspondent and soon-to-be “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert.
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While making no specific indications about his future plans, the 52-year-old comedian reassured viewers he will not fade away into obscurity.
“This show isn’t ending,” he said. “We’re merely taking a small pause in the conversation… Rather than saying goodbye or goodnight, I’m going to say ‘I’m going to get a drink and I’m sure I’m going to see you guys before I leave.’”
Stewart’s retirement caps off an extended period of transition in late night television that began with Jay Leno’s departure from “The Tonight Show” in early 2014 and continued in May when David Letterman signed off from his CBS show. Stewart’s successor, South African comic Trevor Noah, will make his debut as host next month.
During Stewart’s tenure, “The Daily Show” became more sharply political, satirizing the likes of Fox News, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, among numerous targets. An influential if polarizing figure in American politics and pop culture, Stewart announced his decision to leave “The Daily Show” in February after 16 years.
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“This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host,” he said at the time.
The episode began with what seemed to be a standard “Daily Show” report about Thursday night’s Republican debate in Cleveland — an event tailor-made for satire that actually began several hours after “The Daily Show” taped in New York.
Given the sheer number of candidates running in the Republican race, Stewart had to call in a back-up team of correspondents. One by one, past and present members of “The Daily Show’s” on-air team stopped by to say farewell.
The well-wishers included Oscar nominee Steve Carell, who told Stewart that “becoming an international superstar was just something I did while waiting for my next assignment.”
Also stopping by was John Oliver, who had just launched into a detailed recollection of his time at “The Daily Show” when Stewart suggested he wrap it up.
“When something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth,” Oliver responded, a reference to the deep-dive reports that have become a trademark of his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” “I’m talking 15, 18, even 20 minutes if necessary.”
Even Stewart’s replacement, Noah, came through the studio with a tape measure to size up the desk he’ll take over next month.
“Could you give me like 20 more minutes?” Stewart asked.
In between the tributes was a montage of kiss-offs from the politicians and personalities who’d taken the greatest amount of ribbing from Stewart over the years. The frenemies included Sen. John McCain, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham and, of course, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who with typical bluster urged Stewart to “have fun feeding your rabbits, quitter” — a reference to the comedian’s plans to open an animal sanctuary in New Jersey.
Stephen Colbert, the former “Daily Show” correspondent and “Colbert Report” host who will succeed Letterman at “Late Show” next month, had what may have been the most difficult task of the evening: Forcing Stewart to listen to his heartfelt expression of gratitude.
“You said to me and to many other people here years ago never to thank you because we owe you nothing. It is one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong,” Colbert said, calling Stewart “infuriatingly good” at his job. “I know you are not asking for this, but on behalf of so many people whose lives you changed over the last 16 years, thank you.”
Stewart also took the opportunity to speak from the heart, thanking the staff and crew of “The Daily Show” in a sequence inspired by the famous Copacabana long take in “Goodfellas.”
“They’re the best in the business,” Stewart said of his team.
And while he kept the commentary to a minimum, in the closing minutes of the broadcast Stewart warned viewers to be on guard against “bull—” in pointed remarks that touched on the major themes (media manipulation, political cowardice) and news events (the financial crisis, Citizens United) that he’s covered in his run at “The Daily Show.”
“The best defense against bull— is vigilance,” he said. “If you smell something, say something.”
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