Jon Stewart’s final night hosting “The Daily Show” is upon us.
Thursday evening, Stewart will host an especially long episode — at least 50 minutes according to Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless. No one knows who his guests are or what’s planned, but it’s certain to be a massive celebration.
But we’re not here to speculate on Stewart’s last night. This piece is about looking back at the lasting impact of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on both late-nite comedy and political discourse in America. Stewart’s beloved for his ability to make us laugh — no doubt — but he’s even more celebrated for his ability to highlight the absurdity of the American political system, from politicians to pundits to media, and everything in between.
Jon Stewart wasn't always the politically-minded 'Daily Show' host we know and love. He took over for original host Craig Kilborn in January of 1999, and much of his first years were spent finding his voice.
The first episode featured plenty of political commentary and a few nods to what the show would become.
He ended it with a speech telling viewers: 'I'm sure many of you are curious, 'Is my beloved Daily Show going to change?' Well, it might. Subtly. And, I know change can be painful, but from change comes growth.' Stewart said during his premiere episode. 'I'm a new member of this family, your family, and I'll be here for you every night,' he added.
His coverage of former President Clinton's impeachment proceedings were comical, but ultimately lighthearted. It wasn't until the election debacle of 2000 that Stewart's political focus sharpened.
Stewart, alongside Colbert, attacked the November 7, 2000 election night head-on. The show became an hour-long special for the evening, and the subsequent month of debate over whether George W. Bush or Al Gore won the election became a flashpoint for Stewart's pointed commentary on the American political system.
The attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001 was a turning point for Stewart's time at 'The Daily Show.'
The September 11 attack on New York City impacted New Yorkers especially strongly, of course, and many of the city's comedians were floundering in its wake. When was it going to be safe to laugh again? If, as the saying goes, comedy is 'tragedy plus time,' how much time needed to pass before it was safe to make jokes -- to try and make people laugh again while they were feeling horrible?
Stewart's tear-filled post-9/11 monologue on the September 20, 2001 episode of 'The Daily Show' addresses this head on with a distinct lack of comedy. He acknowledged that, yeah, it wasn't a good time to laugh, and it's fine for shows like his to simply let the emotions hang out.
He framed that monologue with an apology to his audience:
It's something that, unfortunately, we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts and move on to the business of making you laugh, which we haven't been able to do very effectively lately.
The segments which launched with the show in 1999 blended into a more fluid experience. And his open, emotional approach to addressing viewers after 9/11 cemented Stewart as the voice of reason in American political discourse. He assumed the role of so many newscasters before him -- from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Kronkite -- despite his role as a 'fake' newscaster.
As President George W. Bush's eight-year presidency began, Stewart's 'Daily Show' became the go-to place for millions of Americans who felt at odds with the president's policies. Stewart's relentless takedowns of both the president and the Republican party rallied viewers.
Stewart's skewering of politicians from both Democratic and Republican political parties became more and more pointed as time moved on. The bulk of his first years were spent under a Republican-led White House -- a Republican-led White House with policies Stewart (and many Americans) disagreed with.
Showing his comedy roots, Stewart's best moments were comedy-heavy while making important political points along the way.
By the time President Barack Obama took over the White House in 2008, Stewart's place in American politics was locked. President Obama became the first sitting president to guest on 'The Daily Show' in a 2010 appearance.
Three days later, Stewart and former 'Daily Show' correspondent/then-'The Colbert Report' host Stephen Colbert, held 'The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' on The National Mall.
One of Stewart's most important targets was the United States Veterans Affairs department, and it was certainly the last major target he went after before announcing his departure from 'The Daily Show' earlier this year.
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