As a post-recession, Iraq-war-concluding, police-brutality-video-watching America braced itself for a Presidential campaign pitting a Clinton against a Bush, a beloved late-night host wrapped up his long-running show, leaving America’s entertainment press grappling for words as though they were eulogizing a President or a Pope.
Right, and that’s the only thing Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart have in common. Or is it?
When you’ve had it up to here with this week’s outpouring of turgidity and grandiloquence – when you’re saying to yourself, My God, when has anyone cared this much about a guy leaving a show? – think back to the 1992 retirement of Johnny Carson, after 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show. “Look on the bright side; you won’t have to read or see any more coverage about me leaving the show,” Johnny half-joked during his final episode. “My God, the Soviet Union’s end hasn’t received this kind of publicity.” Carson was responding to bombastic encomiums that, until this week, no one else has since enjoyed, not Jay Leno, not Conan O’Brien, not even David Letterman a few months ago.
And that makes sense, because Jon Stewart is the Johnny Carson of the 21st century. Let’s take a moment to understand why.
Johnny wasn’t first with his format – it just felt that way. Jack Paar pre-dated Carson the way Craig Kilborn technically pre-dated Stewart. Before Paar, Steve Allen really invented Carson’s wheel(house), as SNL’s “Weekend Update” had invented the skeletal version of what would become Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead’s The Daily Show. Carson’s work was succeeded/improved upon by David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bob Costas, and Conan O’Brien; similar arrows can be drawn from Stewart to Stephen Colbert (taking over for Letterman soon), John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Larry Wilmore. That’s a lot of testosterone.
Carson basically had 11:30 to himself in a three-network world, but retired in the face of an increasingly fragmented cable landscape; Stewart didn’t need to have 11:00 to himself in a DVR-internet world, where he had the country’s most consistently popular 7-minute segments (often watched the next day), yet he retired in the face of an increasingly fragmented internet landscape – as Carson didn’t do CNN, Stewart doesn’t do Twitter (yet). They were both – how to put this? – not tall. Perhaps relatedly, they didn’t talk down to us. Outside of silly shticks, they never “broke character” – when not setting up a joke, they maintained that sincere, can-you-believe-this? attitude so well that you sometimes wanted them to change it up for variety’s sake.
Did the times make the man, or the man make the times, as NY Mag suggested when its cover called 2001-10 The Jon Stewart Decade? A little bit of both. Johnny Carson, probably much to his surprise, became the baby boomers’ beloved uncle, the one worth staying up for (at least through the end of the monologue). Jon Stewart, probably much to his surprise, served a similar function for millennials. In the end, it felt like Johnny got us through the divisive 1960s and the other Me Decades of the Cold War, while Jon has gotten us through the post-9/11 period of desperately needing both information and sense-of-humor perspective.
Let’s be clear: Johnny and Jon ran two different types of shows; that’s why you can say they each broke the mold. One was the Allen-sculpted late-night talk-show, the other was fake-news-plus-interviews. One was an hour, one a half-hour. In that half-hour, Stewart and his crew probably produced as many laughs as Carson did in an hour. But focusing on format distracts from what the shows had in common. They both took advantage of an unwritten TV rule that says you can be a little looser, wilder, and even schtick-ier after Prime Time. And they were two approaches to the same mission: keeping America both well-informed and laughing. If you don’t think there’s overlap to the job description, ask Stephen Colbert.
If Carson didn’t joke about it, there was a real sense that it didn’t matter, wasn’t urgent. As a corollary, if you made Carson’s monologue, you were part of mainstream America – even if you didn’t realize it. In the mid-80s, Carson could be relied upon for jokes not only about defense budgets, urban crime, and terrorism but also about Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Madonna – in a way that he never joked about anyone whose songs hit #1 in, say, 1978. This says something about the pop supernova created by Jackson, but it also showed that Carson, or at least his writers, weren’t simply servicing their presumptive ring-a-ding-ding Rat-Pack-loving natural constituency, but also keeping up with – and keeping afloat – pop culture. Stewart more directly targeted the media and politics, but a lot of people still trusted him to keep them informed. That’s why pundits this week want to compare him to the great muckrakers of the past.
Stewart did reflect newer sensibilities that were post-Carson, post-Letterman, and especially post-Larry Sanders Show, the Garry Shandling-led HBO program that, in reaction to Carson and the Game-of-Thrones-like battle for Carson’s chair, brilliantly skewered late-night trappings and made it impossible for anyone to host a late show with Sanders-level ego again. We had considered Johnny and Dave “folksy” in their Midwestern-ness, but Stewart turned on the charm and the shame in equal measures, never for one second putting himself above even a lesser comic (as Johnny and Dave occasionally did). We think of Jon as a nicer guy (fewer divorces?), but then, maybe men have just become a bit more metrosexual, or maybe Jon taught us to be that way.
When Carson started at The Tonight Show in 1962, being white and from Nebraska was still a mark of diversity and even preferential treatment from Ivy League colleges (in Splendor in the Grass (1961), the Warren Beatty character arrives in Boston from Kansas and has believably never tried pizza); by the time of Stewart’s 1999 beginning at The Daily Show, we needed a little more something-something, and Stewart didn’t mind playing the Jewish card when he felt like it. You heard about Wyatt Cenac feeling uncomfortable being black and in the writer’s room; one thing you didn’t read in those articles (or in other tribute pieces this week) is that The Daily Show only hired its first “Black Correspondent” (including that awkward title) in 2006, Larry Wilmore. What a ten-year turnaround: Stewart leaves behind two non-whites anchoring the 11 and 11:30 positions.
The books, already in first-draft form, about the Obama Era coinciding with the Diversity-Shaming Era (diversity-shaming = calling anything racist/prejudiced and watching your click-count increase exponentially), all ask the chicken-or-egg question: did diversity-shaming kick into high gear in 2009 because leftists found racist undertones to all criticism of President Obama, or because rightists really had a problem with Obama’s race? Or was it just Twitter? Let’s not forget a fourth explanation, which says that after Stewart’s 2004 appearance on Crossfire where he told the hosts “You’re hurting America” (leading to the show’s cancellation), and after 2008, now with Wilmore and Cenac on staff, Stewart, when not organizing his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, found diversity-shaming to be a lot of fun.
Still, President Obama was right when he appeared on The Daily Show the other day and called Stewart “a gift to the country.” All those Emmys were earned. All that research for all those clips remains mind-boggling. Stewart not only “made” Comedy Central, he centralized comedy for a war-weary, 1%-mistrusting nation. He fostered an environment where books like “America” and Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Jessica Williams could become important seemingly by accident. He didn’t need to organize a rally to restore sanity. He restored it four nights a week, 35 weeks a year (well, I’m being generous with that 35 number).
Many of those bombastic encomiums for Carson turned out to be deserved, because the end of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson really was the end of an era – Letterman was funnier, edgier, and more talented, but for 30 years, no one quite united the country like Carson. Even amongst the right (perhaps for the wrong reasons), Stewart served a similar function for about 17 years, probably an equivalent number of years when you consider the exponential increase in infotainment options. The shows seemed somehow under-titled under Johnny and Jon – “The Tonight Show”? “The Daily Show”? That’s it? For their successors, the titles were bigger than the men. No matter how good Trevor Noah turns out to be – despite his old tweets, let’s give him that he’ll be funnier than Jay Leno – he’ll never be as necessary as Stewart has been. It’s the end of an era, people. Good night, Jon Stewart, and good luck.