It's really hard to articulate the effect that Jon Stewart has had on not just American television, but an entire generation of people who wouldn't have a clue about a myriad of topical, important issues otherwise. While ostensibly, Stewart is the goofy, comedic host of an almost variety show, in reality The Daily Show is the place where a lot of people get their news and are entertained in doing so.
During the George W. Bush era, post 9/11, all of the 'Late Night' talk shows had an absolute field day with a president who provided much fodder for their monologues. Sure, the more popular Clinton did it too, but Bush would regularly drop clangers and the talented network comedy writers - always hungry for material - pulled hours of content from those often ridiculous quotes. Naturally Stewart did this also - he knows how to play broad - but he also looked under the hood of the administration and took aim at the Vice President, Dick Cheney, when others concentrated on the latest issue of 'Shit George Said'.
While everyone was distracted with Bush's latest embarrassing mispronunciation during an important address, or pissing themselves laughing at an awkward attempt at mimicking the dancing ritual of foreign culture, Stewart and his team would do the same, but differently. Using the ridiculousness of the president's actions to underline other points; thus informing and entertaining his audience in equal measure. No one on American television has ever done that before. That balance of entertain and inform is the holy grail for broadcasters and journalists the world over and it's the reason Stewart's legacy is so cast iron, despite the aforementioned comedic shtick he loves to push.
Being somewhat of a geek when it comes to the trials and tribulations of Late Night television in America since Dave Letterman made a trip to London damn near a couple of decades ago, whenever possible and in the vicinity, I'd go to a taping. On a recent trip to the US, I watched an ever entertaining, already retiring Letterman do his thing for a live taping of The Late Show. An exhilarating experience, Dave is fascinating to watch. A showman, by all accounts, but also strangely insular during ad breaks, only really speaking to a couple of members of his team specifically and visibly unhappy when a joke or two would fall flat. That's by no means derogatory of the legend of Letterman; the man is a force and truly defines what a variety show should give its audience - even if his edges have blunted slightly in the latter years after an entertaining feud of sorts with the far broader Jay Leno.
In contrast to Letterman, a taping of The Daily Show and a glimpse behind the scenes somehow managed to endear this fan even further to Stewart. Blasting Bruce Springsteen from the small studio speakers to get not just the audience, but himself amped, Stewart did a pre-show question and answers session with an audience he held effortlessly in the palm of his hand. If anyone was a casual fan before, they were completely on board now. Between takes or turnovers on the set, he'd interact with his team, fist-bumping here, man-hugging there. A man who didn't appear to project a persona of something he wished he was; for all intents and purposes Stewart, despite his aforementioned cultural significance, is just an amiable dude with some things to say who also happens to be a good boss who gets along with his team.
Ask those that have gone on to huge success post-Daily Show contributor slots. Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, most recently and (notably) John Oliver, who covered for Stewart for 8 weeks while he directed his first feature film and thrived; ultimately bagging his own, not dissimilar show on HBO in the process. Unlike a lot of bosses, who'd be pissed off at one of their stars leaving to go to a rival station to do pretty much what he does, Stewart surprised Oliver by dedicating the entire second half of a show to him, bringing the Englishman to visible tears of appreciation.
Whatever Stewart does next, it's unlikely to be as intense as The Daily Show's punishing regime. To be fair he could miss the grind and go back to a similar format, but his statement at the end of last night's show indicated that well, the man misses his family.
A return to the freedom of stand-up comedy may be most likely; if you walk through the small, thin corridor of The Comedy Cellar in New York, you'll see a happy as shit Stewart proudly pictured on the walls alongside a few other comedy greats. A more intimate setting to return to his roots and exercise that brilliant brain.
Whatever he does, however he does it, we'll miss his endless moments of zen and lap up every one of them until he's gone.