There Will Never Be Another Late Night Host as Revolutionary as Jon Stewart
The Daily Show will live on after Jon Stewart's final show.
That may seem obvious, considering Trevor Noah has been named the replacement host, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting amid all the memorials of Stewart's time on the show. It all feels quite final, and that's largely because Stewart's departure signals the end of influential late night hosts.
Much has been written over the years about how much millennials trust Stewart and The Daily Show to deliver the news. But that fact has always been espoused somewhat incredulously — how could a group of young people see a comedian as the best source of news? For generations past that grew up with venerable newsmen like Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, this is nigh-unfathomable.
But young people don't love Stewart instead of the Brokaws and Cronkites. They love him because he is their Brokaw and Cronkite.
When Cronkite gave his legendary address about the Vietnam War on-air, he shifted public perception of the war. Opposition to the war efforts were mostly countercultural — that is, until Cronkite declared it hopeless.
"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate," he said in a 1968 broadcast. His opinion mattered because he was a traditional journalist free of editorializing. That he chose to break from his code — that was how audiences knew the war was really disastrous.
Compare that to Stewart's recent segment on the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting. In a break from form, Stewart told no jokes during his monologue. "I got nothing for you in terms of, like, jokes and sounds because of what happened in South Carolina," he said during the June 18 show. "And maybe if I wasn't nearing the end of the run and this wasn't such a common occurrence, maybe I could've pulled out of the spiral, but I didn't."
This isn't the first time he's done this, either; he took a similar approach after the Eric Garner verdict. Basically, it's a signal to his audience that this issue is on a different plane. It's not funny, there's no joke lying at the heart to be made. It's serious.
That's what separates Stewart from his contemporaries in late night. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel come up with viral videos, but to break from their format would read as inauthentic. (Kimmel did attempt this with Cecil the lion last week to some success, but he drew a good bit of criticism as well.) Noah could reach the same level of trust that Stewart has cultivated, but it will take time — Stewart's been on the air since 1999 — and he's already earned detractors over previous insensitive jokes.
The one person who does seem like a potential heir to Stewart's throne is John Oliver. He routinely wins over the Internet with witty segments on Last Week Tonight. However, at least for now, he's a bit restrained by his format: The show only airs on Sundays on HBO and keeps him from being a regular presence.
It's therefore likely that Stewart will be the last late night talk show host who completely changes what that can mean. More and more, audiences are finding late night hosts' work online, in the form of fun Tonight Show games or intense Last Week Tonight monologues. These people aren't revolutionizing their format — they're moving to a new one.
All of that will make Stewart's presence all the more missed. He's a treasure who, despite flaws, has had a tremendous impact on a generation. The Daily Show will never be the same without him, and late night will have a hole that can't be filled. He's not gone for good, of course; this is just moving onto other projects, not retiring.
But for the moment, as the future remains unclear, it's all the more important to remember the legacy he'll leave behind.