The Showclix website for reserving tickets to The Daily Show recommends that you not book a trip to New York City for the sole purpose of attending a taping of the show. The tickets you can get for free on the site are reservations, and if you don’t get in line early enough, you’re not guaranteed to get in. I booked the trip anyway. I wanted to see to Jon Stewart in person, doing what he’ll always be most known for, before he retired (or whatever he ends up doing after he leaves the show). NYC’s still a fun place to visit, after all.
For me and everyone else who’s put off going to see a live show, it’s now or never. Jon’s leaving the show in August, and tickets to The Daily Show are impossible to get unless you can be in NYC on short notice or, if you’re like me, get insomnia on just the right night and decide to check the Showclix site at five in the morning on a random day.
So we waited in line for hours, got our actual tickets, were told to come back in two hours, and went to Times Square for a little while. We got back, waited in line again, entered the building, waited in line again to enter the studio, waited for the warm-up comedian to hype the crowd, then finally, for Jon Stewart to do his thing, in his last year as host.
The Q&A with the crowd showed him at his most weary, mostly because it was clear he’d had to field a number of questions about his departure. But his leave is part of a much grander transition in the show’s life. His recent hires—Jessica Williams and Hasan Minhaj in particular—have been among the show’s best, and have helped assuage some of the programs’ diversity problems. These changes are all part of a larger shift in what the show will be after he’s gone. Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, two of the show’s longest-running correspondents, have moved on to create their own show. Writers and staff alike are making their own exits, writing for other late-night hosts or finding new avenues for their work. If you’re a fan, you can’t help but wonder what the show will be like by the end of the year.
As the face of the show, Stewart takes the brunt of the questions that amount to “why?”. How did the decision to leave the show to Trevor Noah come up? “Let me make something clear first. I don’t ‘hand’ the show to anyone,” Stewart said to the crowd at the taping I attended. It’s the network’s show, and they pick whoever they want, with his recommendation. He saw something in Noah and recommended him. You could tell he’s answered some form of this question every day since he announced.
If nothing else, he’s a consummate showman. You could read every bit of his routine as part of the Jon Stewart who interviewed with the Guardian after deciding he didn’t want to do the show anymore, putting on a smile for the cameras while watching the clock until it was time to punch out. But you could also read his performance as someone who doesn’t want to get to that point. The one who just wanted to see his kids more often. The one who’s inspired by an end date to do great things before he’s gone. “You don’t want to leave when the cupboard’s bare.”
Stewart may be leaving, in part, because of his increasing disillusionment with the political process, and the process of covering it—“Are there other ways to skin this cat?” and so forth—but at the taping I attended, he was in rare form. For the record, it was April 29th, 2015.
I can’t go back and watch the initial monologue with any sort of focus. It’s weird seeing what I watched live get played back to me, and instead of ingesting the various clips and arguments against legalizing gay marriage Stewart shot down, I think about how he darted his eyes as clips and soundbites played, seemed to make small mental notes between bits by nodding his head. Watching it live, it strikes me just how much the format works for him; by focusing in on one topic rather than covering “the news of the day,” he can tackle one topic with gusto then half-heartedly jump among headlines. It’s certainly the biggest difference you’ll notice if you watch earlier episodes, circa Craig Kilborn.
He may be dissatisfied with the political cycle, with bumbling, tone-deaf news coverage and punditry, but he hasn’t lost his passion for its results. Where many late-night hosts’ monologues feel entirely written, Jon sacrifices a degree of brevity in favor of flow. It works to get viewers to ride along with him, to follow his frustrations and get caught up in his ire. It’s perhaps a bit manipulative and not without its faults, especially when he presents himself as purely a comedian and not the razor-witted and humorous pundit he’s grown into. But it’s the reason he’s still thriving, so captivating for the liberal college kid looking for a place to direct their newfound disillusionment with society. He does this so issues like gay marriage matter as much to them as they do to him. Think of The Daily Show as Liberal Awareness 101.
His brand of jabbing (or sneering, if you’d prefer) was put into a clearer light by the episode’s segment from Lewis Black, whose old-man crank act may appeal to his crowd for its boisterousness but lacks the direct appeal to empathy. Seeing his segment also meant seeing how Stewart operates during segments where he’s not on camera. Here, too, he’s fully engaged; he keeps his arms pressed against his body and his head down to leave Black to his work. He keeps his laughter silent enough so as to not get picked up on the mic, and makes minor jabbing motions when Black makes particularly salient points.
The guest was Judith Miller, a conservative hawk walking into a liberal den to promote a memoir. After the Q&A mentioned earlier, Stewart came out one more time before the show started to temper the crowd: he and Miller were inevitably going to discuss the New York Times article she and Michael Gorden co-wrote, the one the Bush administration would later use as supporting evidence for entering the Iraq the following year. He told us he knew that we were more likely than not a leftist crowd, and to not get too riled up about what Miller had to say. “Let me handle it,” he told the crowd.
If Stewart is tired of the cyclical political system, of staring into the heart of its machinations for years on end, of watching Fox News for hours a day, he’s definitely not tired of political discourse. His best moments aren’t from easily propagated skits like you’d find on Fallon or Conan, but from his ability to engage opposition and inspired debate. From his genuine outpouring of grief shortly after 9/11, his acerbic and disarming appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, his dismantling of Glenn Beck’s whole schtick, his best moments, while occasionally comedic, have little to do with how funny he is.
His captivating twenty-minute argument with Miller showed just how much steam he had left in him, how when he can find the place to let his true passions out, he can deliver some of the best discourse on television, the kind he’d called for on his Crossfire appearance. He isn’t phoning it in when he probes Miller on the same question multiple times when she dodges. As with the monologue, he cares so much about what he’s covering, and if he doesn’t, he wants his audience to care. Because it matters.
In the Guardian interview, he mentions how you tend not to make the decision to continue running marathons at mile 24—how you shouldn’t make decisions in the heat of the moment. Now, at marathon mile 25 he refuses to languidly approach the finish line. Like Colbert before him, he’s given himself an extra boost by setting the terms of his departure himself. Rather than fade away into irrelevance or worse, he’s given himself the opportunity to go out on a high note.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who, after visiting Times Square for the first time, now has someone’s mixtape, signed to “S-banger.” You can follow him @SurielVazquez.