Jon Stewart departed "The Daily Show" last night in favor of guest host John Oliver -- Stewart will return in September after spending the summer directing a movie. His break is coming none too soon.
As he prepares to shoot his film (a Middle East-set drama called "Rosewater"), Stewart's continued to rely on the same tics -- goofy accents, for instance -- he has since taking over the show in 1999, and seemingly has struggled to find ways to cover Barack Obama's second term. Earlier this week, he led the show with a sequence about the Iraq War culminating in a joke about George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner. Timely -- for a time traveler from the days when we were all waiting for the fall of Speaker Dennis Hastert and looking forward to seeing "Wedding Crashers." (The joke also includes Stewart's most maddening accent, one where he imitates "The Simpsons"'s Professor Frink to goose audience laughter.)
Also this week, Stewart responded to scrutiny of the IRS with an inscrutable "ghetto" accent ("People gettin' all up in the IRS business! Checkin' they books!") before doing a Mr. Burns "Exxxxcellent," a Mafia accent, and a Southern accent within the space of four minutes. He made buckshot references to "death panels" and birth control for children; it wasn't clear whom he was satirizing -- the IRS? Obama's opponents on the right? (He eventually went after the IRS' spending.)
Without George W. Bush as a target, Stewart has leaned harder on false equivalencies -- a pattern that reached its nadir with his 2010 rally which posited that liberal Democrats and the Tea Party were one another's equal and opposite. There's a reason that no one discusses the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear much anymore. Even when he gets a George W. Bush-sized target these days, his tricks seem hackneyed. Commenting on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's decision to call a special election in New Jersey this October to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Jon Stewart did a Mafia accent again -- Jersey, don't you know? And then cut to Christie, in 2009, commenting he'd never call a special election. Stewart just gesticulated in mute rage that sounded a bit overmatched to the situation.
The longtime host of "The Daily Show," even at the peak of his critical adulation, has always relied on a supercilious je ne sais quoi, a self-satisfied sense both that Stewart is the ultimate arbiter of truth (the real IRS scandal is how much they spent on parody videos!) and that a goofy accent can bail out weaker material. And Stewart's own place in the culture has gotten somewhat muddied. The writer and critic Tara Ariano, at her site Previously.TV, described "The Daily Show" as taking a "smug break" this summer: "[T]he show (and he) try to have it both ways as a source of news and punditry: you don't get to be all 'Hey, we're just a dumb little comedy show' and then do things like debate Bill O'Reilly or throw a Rally To Restore Sanity."
Stewart -- whose show, it should be noted, is still the 800-pound-gorilla of the Emmys -- used to have much harder targets. Prior to the break of the Obama administration's spying on citizens (ironically, just as Stewart's departing), scandals like the IRS revocation of tax-exempt status for Tea Party groups seemed to have little to do with the administration, and so Stewart's been forced to find new targets beyond the old cathartic mockery of the executive branch. "Stewart's having a really tough time. He does not have a lot of material," said Steve Almond, who's critiqued Stewart in The Baffler but told Salon he's a fan. "What he's done is switch the focus to Fox News and CNN and our idiotic Fourth Estate." (Meanwhile, he also seems to be hanging out with the Fourth Estate, as an earnest segment with Brian Williams about the Jersey Shore this week suggested.)
It all adds up to very little fun. Said Almond: "I feel like when I watch him, I'm draining off the necessary disgust and rage I should feel." For Stewart's brand of comedy, he added, "You want a big target. [Stewart's] razor is aimed at idiocy and hypocrisy and Obama's trying to get stuff through our broken system. That's boring stuff."
This past winter, the longtime host came in for criticism from, among others, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman and New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait for drawing a moral equivalency between Democrats and Republicans during the debt ceiling debacle. At the time, Leslie Savan, a blogger for The Nation, told Salon: "He’s a bully! … I think he wants to deny [that he’s anything more than a comedian] so he can maintain that perch of seeing everyone else as being goofy."
Even so, Stewart's fan base remains strong. Steve Heisler, a comedy journalist for The AV Club among other outlets, told Salon that Stewart's comedy and his advocacies come from the same place: "He's maybe a little bit of a heightened persona -- but when Jon Stewart says something, it's relatively genuine. That's the freedom he has."
What about all those goofy voices, though? Heisler said that he'd miss them: "I don't think that's unique to Jon Stewart. When Conan O'Brien [a comedian known for very specific comic tics] was off the air, people got excited to see him again. Jon Stewart has tics, but I wouldn't say he's the tic-master. It speaks to the fact that he's so comfortable in the job -- he owns it."
But, throughout history, even hosts who "own" the gig have taken time away -- Stewart probably less than most. Tim Brooks, a television historian who worked in the research department at NBC when Johnny Carson frequently allowed guest hosts the run of "The Tonight Show," told Salon: "One of the ways you cool off is too much familiarity. A major star has to take a break at some point."
"You have to be concerned that the substitute doesn't outshine you -- someone's so fresh and great that you dont seem so great anymore," said Brooks. But that seems unlikely. As Heisler noted, guest host Oliver "hasn't had a ton of time to hone his voice on Comedy Central," and has a silly persona similar to Stephen Colbert's, shifting the balance of the 11 p.m. hour.
And besides, the last time a guest host was so good that the star saw himself in jeopardy was in a work of fiction, when a frequent guest host on "The Larry Sanders Show" was so edgy and novel he threatened to unseat the fictional Sanders. The guest host was Jon Stewart. The year was 1998.