Leave it to Denis Leary to cut through the sentimental fog with one question.
On Tuesday, as a guest on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Leary glanced at the host, his old friend. Then he asked, “What the f--- is wrong with you?”
Those seven words were like unscrewing a release valve. The audience laughed the way people do when melancholy is briefly lifted. Stewart was equally amused, rolling back his chair and doubling over, holding his right fist over his mouth and giggling like a schoolgirl trying to keep it together during detention.
Leary was ribbing Stewart for walking away from an ungodly sum of money as a TV star in order to spend more time with his family. But what he was really asking boiled down to another seven words: Why must you leave us right now?
It’s a question Daily Show fans have struggled with since February, when Stewart, 52, first triggered heartbreak after announcing plans to retire. Now the dreaded Final Show, a supersized hour full of surprise guests, is just hours away.
On Thursday night, after 16 years, four presidential elections and countless gags, Stewart will vacate the satirical pulpit that turned him into a cultural demigod. He will cease to hurl thunderbolts from on high, eviscerating the rogues and blundering dunderheads in politics and media with a mix of comedic jiujutsu and savage wit.
By midnight, Stewart will be gone. By Friday, late night will never be the same.
Political satire has existed for centuries. Talk shows, meanwhile, have always harnessed current events to power monologues. What Stewart did after taking over in 1999 was to combine both into a high-octane hybrid that managed to feel both breezy and momentous, like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as read aloud by a horn-tooting birthday clown.
Stewart’s genius was in seeing how politics could replicate the news-of-the-weird type stories the show used to chase down when Craig Kilborn was host. It was in understanding that to really have an impact, to be more than just a series of disjointed punch lines, a comedy should operate with a higher purpose, a sensibility now self-evident in everything from Key & Peele to Inside Amy Schumer.
Making people laugh was always the goal, sure. What Stewart proved was that a comedy could also have a point of view, a unified framework in which to react to the absurd. If those same people who were laughing at home got worked up, all the better.
Stewart set out on a mission of mirth. But he was never hostile to gravity.
In the world of late-night TV, where emotional detachment was once a job requirement, his willingness to lead by passionate example — to expose his own righteous indignation and set the anger needle on the cultural barometer — was something of a revelation.
The court jester could be serious. He could advocate. He had a sensitive side.
From the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to America’s subprime housing crisis in 2009, from the war in Iraq to incidents of mass shootings, police brutality, partisan bickering, international intrigue, racial tension and political gaffes that exploded during his run, Stewart found comedy in some very dark places.
He tried to dismantle the news at a safe distance. He also seemed to take it all very personally. You never got the sense Stewart was reading lines and going home in an oblivious daze. Instead, it felt like he was invested in the madness, weighed down by it. Not as a left-wing shill or hypocritical elite, as his detractors keep insisting, but as a thoughtful, empathetic human prone to hopeless idealism.
Stewart was the friend who called to get something off his chest and then, seconds later, sincerely wanted to know how you were doing.
As his audience grew, as his “Indecision” election coverage and “Mess O’Potamia” war coverage turned him into a hero to progressives and boogeyman to conservatives, the one thing Stewart never lost was his moral compass. He became the conscience of late night TV. Right or wrong, agree or disagree with his views, he acted in accordance with his decent impulses and did so consistently.
That’s why he’ll be so missed, why late night is losing a crucial voice on Thursday.
Jon Stewart believed comedy could make a difference.