Last night on The Daily Show With John Stewart, after an interminable interview with David Axelrod, Stewart made a surprising announcement to the audience: he would be leaving the show later this year after 17 years of hosting. “I don’t have any specific plans,” Stewart said. “Got a lot of ideas. I got a lot of things in my head. I’m going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people.”
“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow,” he continued. “But this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.”
Over the past two decades, Stewart brought the long-running satirical news show to the national forefront, injecting his sharp, sharp-witted critique into the political discourse. In that time the show won a total of 20 Emmy Awards, and his take on events became as sought after—and as tuned into—as actual-news voices on actual-news networks, both of which he gleefully pilloried night after night. Along the way protégé Stephen Colbert left to start his own show, The Colbert Report, which ended when Colbert announced he would take over the Late Show when David Letterman retired in 2015. John Oliver, who guest hosted in the summer of 2013 while Stewart directed the film Rosewater, is about to start the second season of his well-received HBO show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.
As Stewart’s tenure unfolded, the world changed. He began hosting in 1999, soon helping the American viewing public through the trauma of 9/11, the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the endless absurdity of every election season since then. Stewart’s own interests, beyond mocking Fox News, began to take shape, and his “I’m just a comedian” shtick began to seem less and less plausible (see: Stewart’s 2010 Washington, D.C. ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’). Stewart got serious, championing the cause of journalists working in the Middle East under unfriendly and often dangerous circumstances. He introduced American viewers to Bassem Yousef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, whose similarly-minded satire show in Egypt was shut down after threats from authorities, and who this week appeared on The Daily Show as a contributor. Stewart’s film Rosewater, which was released in 2014, told the story of Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari’s 118-day detention in Iran after reporting on the country’s 2009 election. One of the charges lobbed at Bahari by his torturer was that he was a spy, an allegation based on a Daily Show segment he had appeared in. Jon Stewart has said that hearing that was what motivated him to make the film.
As Stewart’s role shifted from news-mocker to news-maker, he began outgrowing his behind-the-desk role. The big question now is who Comedy Central will anoint to succeed Stewart.
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.