The last eight months have felt like a body blow to political comedy.
First, Stephen Colbert stepped away from The Colbert Report, his mock Fox News rant, to be replaced by Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. Larry tries hard (usually too hard), but the withering irony isn’t there.
Colbert will be back in September, replacing David Letterman, who stepped down in May from CBS’ The Late Show. For a generation that includes me, Letterman really defined the concept of the late-night comedy talkfest. Of course, it will be nice to see Colbert again, but the loss of Letterman — who hosted a late night show longer than anyone in history, including Johnny Carson — is difficult to calculate.
And then there’s Jon Stewart. For nearly 17 years, he has — more than Colbert and Letterman — defined political commentary through the lens of the humorist. Where Colbert skewered right wing faux news shows, Stuart skewered mainstream media and the laziness with which so much of it is practiced today: the celebrity culture, the softball questions masquerading as journalism, the uninformed opinions. Stewart’s reign on The Daily Show ends tonight, of course, and it, like The Late Show, will return in the fall with a new host. But nothing will ever be the same.
True, in recent years, Stewart felt more tired and robotic in his jokes. But ever since his announcement in February that he would be leaving the show, he’s been on a roll. No one has worn his righteous indignation with more intelligent affability. And perhaps no one save Lorne Michaels has launched more television comedy careers. Even within the confines of a 22-minute, three-act talk show format, Stewart raise the game of discussing important things in an accessible and often sadly hilarious way. Few public figures have been at the forefront of gay rights issues like Stewart has been. If you’ve never watched the show, you may be inclined to think he hasn’t had that much of an impact. You would be wrong.
Tonight, when his final episode airs, the end of an era will take place. I’ll be there watching. So let’s raise a glass to Jon Stewart… and one to the health of John Oliver — he’s the future now.