On September 12, 2000, Jon Stewart started The Daily Show’s Headlines segment with the following joke: “The GOP accused of using subliminal advertising. Bush says, ‘Why would we advertise underwater?’” After a run of jokes about then-candidate George W. Bush, Stewart chuckles, “He’s making it so easy.”
Laughs were easy in the late summer of 2000. I was 12 years old the first time I watched the joke, aware that the presidential race had already boiled down to a battle between “boring” and “stupid,” that my parents would be voting between “subliminable” and “lockbox.” None of it seemed overly pressing, after years of economic prosperity and relative post-Cold War peace. Making fun of politicians was gentle sport.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which wraps up its 16-year run tomorrow night, is being eulogized as a constant, steady presence in the culture. In advance of Stewart’s departure, though, Comedy Central has been streaming every episode on its website, in order — an opportunity to wind back time, and to see history happen again on fast-forward. What the time-lapse perspective reveals is that Stewart and his show have been different things at different times, caught unawares with the rest of us by the force of change.
Like any time traveler, the retrospective viewer of the Daily Show is most shocked by everyone’s appalling lack of foresight. Underwater advertising! Does Jon Stewart understand that this man is going to be president? Why isn’t the Daily Show of 2000 researching the candidates? Why isn’t he angry?
This is not the show we have told ourselves we remember. The political jokes don’t go very far beyond what you’d find in any other talk show’s monologue. The entire guest roster of 1999, for the first 11 months, consists of entertainers. Stewart — known now for reading every book by his guests and for long, in-depth talks and debates that are posted online — is bad at interviewing these guests. Today, people routinely go online to watch an extended Stewart interview. Then, I’d turn the show off when the interviews started. Get a few extra minutes of sleep before taking the bus to school.
Speeding through those first two years again, I was perversely thankful to know that the debacle of the 2000 election was coming soon. It was a weird kind of schadenfreude — taking pleasure in pain that I’d already experienced. But I knew that it meant the show would be funnier. Because, in a fit of prophetic brilliance, the Daily Show’s election coverage was branded “Indecision 2000.” Every time they said it before the actual election night, I felt a weird sense of smugness. “You don’t even know how right you are,” I said to the Stewart of the past.
After election night, The Daily Show played clips of CNN’s swerving calls of the Florida vote. They call it for Gore — cut to Stewart saying “Only that wasn’t true.” They call it for Bush, and he grits his teeth and says, “Only that wasn’t true either.”
Once Florida finally ends up going for Bush, Stewart says, “By a total of 537 votes. Wow. That’s a landslide if you’re running for student council treasurer.”
The “Wow” dripped with contempt. The glibness of the joking was gone. Stewart was as frustrated and tired by the five weeks it had taken for America to have a new president as the nation was. Seeing it again, I realized that I’d repressed how utterly awful the legal wrangling in Florida had been. How weeks of my seventh grade civics class were devoted to explaining to a room of 12- and 13-year-olds how any of this could be happening. We were supposed to be studying American exceptionalism, the wisdom of the founding fathers, and the Constitution.
Suddenly, instead, we were in a full-blown constitutional crisis. Instead of our abstract right to vote, we were talking about the electoral college, “butterfly ballots,” and “hanging chads.”
All we were talking about was the goddamn electoral college system and whether we needed a Constitutional amendment to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. About replacing paper with electronic voting machines. What “absentee ballots” were and why they mattered. And, of course, the very real possibility that our next president could win the election without winning the popular vote.
In 2015, it’s upsetting all over again. There’s the déjà vu of reliving the past, but there’s an anger born of hindsight, too: all that momentum, all the recognition that our democracy wasn’t as strong or perfect as we liked to think, wouldn’t come to anything. It’s a short historical note now — the trauma obliterated by everything else to come. As time moved forward, inexorably, on the stream of videos, I wished it were the worst thing that was going to happen.
These days, Indecision 2000 is considered a turning point for The Daily Show. It’s when it finally grew into its own. But the election finally dragged to its end, and The Daily Show lost momentum as quickly as the movement for reform did. And then the waiting really started.
As the stream played the events of December 13, 2000 through September 10, 2001, I sat through an endless parade of vapid news items. December, 2000: Stewart interviews the Spice Girls and Victoria Beckham says that Stewart isn’t that funny — and I agree with her. May 2001: Stewart’s Headlines segment includes the joke, “Steven Tyler’s national anthem angers crowd at Indianapolis 500. Spectators quickly placated by vroom-vrooms going ‘whee!’” And on August 23, 2001 — in the penultimate pre-9/11 episode — Mo Rocca does a five minute segment on entertainment for cats.
It was disposable television back then. It’s unbearable now, knowing there’s no way for them to see what’s about to happen. And I, miserably, want them to. As time passed for the show on my computer screen, I couldn’t look away. I started to worry that I’d stop watching and miss it, all the while hating myself for wanting the show to just get to 9/11.
On July 3, 2015, around 11:30 in the morning, “Your Month of Zen” aired the episode of September 20, 2001, the Daily Show’s return after 9/11. Unlike all the other episodes I’d just sat through, this one was already seared into my memory.
In that show’s monologue, Stewart says:
And our show has changed. I don’t doubt that. And what it has become I don’t know. “Subliminable” is not a punchline anymore. Someday it will become that again, Lord willing it will become that again, because it means that we have ridden out the storm.
In the rewatch, the time between “Subliminable? He’s making it so easy” and “Subliminable is not a punchline anymore”? About two and a half days. Time compression as a bingewatch.
Two and half days of episodes to go from the biggest thing to happen being Bill Clinton’s sex scandal to 9/11. To go from a Stewart making jokes about Al Gore kissing his wife to one who says this:
The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center and now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.
In 2001, that was the message we needed to hear. We were reeling from an attack we’d been told could never happen. “There’s never been an attack on American soil” was a phrase teachers had said to me. “I used to say to students that they had no frame of reference for the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK. Not anymore,” was what another teacher told me after 9/11. We were so desperate for heroes, we turned Rudy Giuliani into one.
In a way, Stewart is right when he says subliminable isn’t a joke anymore. It wasn’t Indecision 2000 or even 9/11 where we saw the Daily Show come into its own. The real transformation occurred in the years after that — not in the disasters, but in our failure to come out of disaster better and stronger. As the message of hope yields dispiriting results, Stewart becomes invaluable as a court jester. As things go from bad to worse, the Daily Show went from good to brilliant. Stewart spoke about awful truths in the only really palatable way — comedy. But even he had no idea how many hits we were going have to take.
The Daily Show called the beginning of the War on Terror “America Freaks Out.” Then “Operation Enduring Coverage.” Then we go into Iraq, and the Daily Show hits gold with “Mess O’Potamia.” A segment title with its first appearance in 2003. The last? In 2014. You can see that they’re winging it — that the chyrons weren’t supposed to last this long. When the attacks by ISIS force him to return to the segment, Stewart dumps the “Mess O’Potamia” logo out of a box and blows dust off of it. An acknowledgement that they hadn’t foreseen this.
Bush being stupid isn’t a joke anymore. But Jon Stewart now has to find a way to make the detention of enemy combatants funny. Enter Gitmo the puppet.
As things go from bad to worse, the most iconic Stewart moments start happening. He sings “Go fuck yourself!” with a gospel choir. He feuds with Jim Cramer about the failures of business reporters. He devotes a whole episode to the bill getting 9/11 first responders health care. It’s a segment called “I Give Up.”
I started watching the stream upset that Jon Stewart was leaving the Daily Show. I ended it feeling like he was better off going. In a grim inversion of Marx’s meditation on Hegel, the first time had been farce, the second time tragedy. The old episodes weren’t funny anymore. They were hard to watch, and could only have been harder to make.
I watched Stewart talk about 9/11 and how we’d persevere. And then I watched him deal with fourteen years of America not rising to that challenge. He made an amazing show, but he stared into the darkness of our world for a very long time. I don’t even blame him for going after easy targets like Donald Trump. They must feel like a relief now, rather than the kind of rote jokes from the first few seasons.
After 9/11, in that famous monologue, he told us:
I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair.
But this summer, after the attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Stewart once again said he couldn’t be funny. But the tone had changed:
I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit. Yeah. That’s us.
Back in 2001, he evoked another racial wound — the death of Martin Luther King. And he used it as an illustration of our endurance and ability to overcome:
One of my first memories is of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five and if you wonder if this feeling will pass...Uh, when I was five, he was shot. Here’s what I remember about it. I was in a school in Trenton. They shut the lights off and we got to sit under our desks and we thought that was really cool and they gave us cottage cheese, which was a cold lunch because there was rioting, but we didn’t know that. We just thought that “My God. We get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese.” And what if – that’s what I remember about it. That was a tremendous test of this country’s fabric and this country’s had many tests before that and after that.
And the reason I don’t despair is because this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone even if it’s momentary. And we’re judging people by not the color of their skin but the content of their character. And you know, all this talk about “These guys are criminal masterminds. They’ve – they’ve gotten together and their extraordinary guile...and their wit and their skill.” It’s a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding. That, that – that is – that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down. They live in chaos and chaos...it can’t sustain itself. It never could. It’s too easy and it’s too unsatisfying.
By June of 2015, after sixteen years of hosting the Daily Show, Stewart offered a bleaker vision of how the past flows into the present:
And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.
Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.
Obviously, this happened after he announced he was leaving. He even says, “And maybe if I wasn’t nearing the end of the run, or this wasn’t such a common occurrence, maybe I could have pulled out of the spiral.” But it could just as easily be that he’s leaving because the commonality of the occurrence means that he knows he won’t pull out of that spiral next time.
Jon Stewart has rarely ever broken the format of The Daily Show. He did on 9/11. He did it again when Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. He managed to give us hope on 9/11. And in 2011, he said “Not to say resistance is futile” about finding a way to prevent shootings. But by this June, we were too broken for Stewart to make comedy out of it.
I don’t know if that’s an accurate view on the world. There have been some great advancements in the last decade and a half. The Daily Show exulted in them, too. Mostly, though, Stewart made the miserable bearable. But it’s finally too much for him to stay.
Top image by Jim Cooke
Full disclosure: I interned at The Colbert Report for a semester in college. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.