That the Fox News-hosted Republican candidates' debate took place on the same day that Jon Stewart left "The Daily Show" -- that is, Thursday -- was not something "The Daily Show" would fail to notice or would leave alone. Taping too early to respond to the actual event, the show fake-covered it as a way to introduce to the stage almost every "Daily Show" correspondent of note since Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn some 16 years ago. (Kilborn was there, too, remotely, as the Senior Previous Daily Show Host Correspondent.)
The episode, which came double-length, was a succession of intimate, even private moments played out in public, with the host trying to honor the occasion while keeping a lid on the sentiment -- and keeping the focus, as much as possible, off himself. When Stephen Colbert went off-book to thank him on behalf of … everyone, Stewart rolled around in his chair and squirmed like a 6-year-old getting his ears washed.
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"It will be quick if you just hold still," said Colbert, who, after some "Lord of the Rings" metaphors, called him "a great artist and a good man," and added, "You can edit this out later."
There were a few celebrity cameos: a pre-taped "strike back" segment including knocks from Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Wolf Blitzer, Bill O'Reilly and John McCain with a Jon Stewart puppet on one hand. Martin Scorsese appeared in the middle of a filmed piece, a "GoodFellas"-style tracking shot through the "Daily Show" offices. And there was the New Jersey band that closed down the joint. Apart from them, the last hour was all about the people who made the show, in front of and behind the camera.
And as the parade of former correspondents showed, there wasn't much reason to look outside the organization for heat. Along with Colbert, there were Steve Carell ("I never left -- becoming an international superstar is something I just did while waiting for my next assignment"), Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Al Madrigal, Lewis Black, Kristen Schaal, Samantha Bee, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry, Dave Atell and more.
Larry Wilmore, whose show usually follows Stewart, was there: "I got nothing else to do tonight," he said. "'The Nightly Show' got bumped.... Black shows matter, Jon.") Oliva Munn brought a cake, under the impression it was Stewart's 70th birthday. Wyatt Cenac, whose recounting of an old argument with Stewart was recently news, showed up for some comical half-rapprochement. And next host Trevor Noah sneaked in to measure the desk.
Stewart is handing off the show just as he took it on, at the beginning of an election cycle; one feels this timing is not coincidental.
No one could have predicted what was ahead when he began -- not only out in the burning world, but in the media that covered it, specifically the rise of the catastrophe-hungry catastrophe that is 24-hour basic-cable news, and its business model based on fear and shouting. Those are the dragons he's been fighting all these years. Like a president, he has gone gray in the job.
I imagine that somewhere in the back of the mind of any political humorist is the desire to put him or herself out of business. To see that the world is out of joint suggests that it might be otherwise; you'll take the laughs in the meantime, but ultimately, if you are sane, you want the insanity to stop.
Much of what Stewart's done has been directed toward that hopeful end; and yet, as a bit on Wednesday's penultimate show pointed out, for all his reputation as a powerhouse -- "The Daily Show: Destroyer of Worlds" was the segment's title -- the old problems were problems still, the old enemies, sometimes with new faces, were still in place.
"I honestly have nothing other than just sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence we do to one another and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend doesn't exist," Stewart had said in a joke-free monologue after the Charleston, S.C., church shootings last month. "I'm confident, though, that by acknowledging it, that by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won't do [anything]."
It's been reported that Stewart and his family have bought a farm in New Jersey, where they will perhaps live with rescue animals -- that is, more than they're living with now. (His wife, Tracey Stewart, has a book coming out in the fall, "Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better.") You can't fix Washington or teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but you can do some immediate, palpable good for a mistreated pig or cow. You can see the attraction.
As to the longer run, Stewart said in closing, "An artist I really admire once said that he thinks of his career as a long conversation with the audience, a dialogue, and I really like that metaphor. Because it takes away the idea of finality.... Nothing ends. It's a pause in the conversation. So rather than say goodbye or goodnight, I'm just going to say I'm going to go get a drink, and I'm sure I'll see you guys before I leave. And so here it is, my moment of zen."
And then he threw to Bruce Springsteen, who sang first about a land of hope and dreams and then of being born to run. And everybody danced.