Thursday's Daily Show/Jon Stewart finale was a curious mixture of pleasure and pain. I think the pain wins this time.
First, the good news. It is always a pleasure to watch a master craftsman at his trade. Stewart consistently delivered high-grade comedy -- that only got better over time. Four laugh-out-loud nights-a-week weren't enough for viewers, and the many gap periods were always poorer for his absence. He obviously wasn't alone in the production, and had learned to lead a remarkably talented band of correspondents, writers and producers ? and their dogs. Our evening staples are Jeopardy and Daily (and, of course, the A's ? yes, even now).
As Stephen Colbert gushed in his off-script tribute, Stewart brought intention and clarity to the work. He has been so utterly open and genuine that it was easy to trust in the truthFulness (not '-Iness') that fueled his comedy. That clarity was most on display when he occasionally got serious. He consistently saw through the barnyard remnants that pass for arguments, and came down foursquare on the side of decency, whether for 9/11 first responders, victims of homegrown atrocity or marriage rights.
Stewart's intolerance of those leavings is what best defined his show. Granted his politics bend toward the liberal (of course, so does decency), but he trained his lens on hypocrisy left and right ? that was the show's common currency. He was particularly tough on the media, more so than the pols they covered. As he told NPR's Terry Gross: Politicians fling (poo) because they're monkeys, and that's what monkeys do. He expected a lot more of the zoo keepers. And again, if Fox News came in for the most regular beatings, it's mostly because they are by far the most conscious, intentionally terrible park rangers.
I especially enjoyed his valedictory monologue regarding cultural scatology, per se, in the study of which he's earned a very public post-doc. Of the three pernicious varieties he identified -- miss-description, unwarranted complexity, and the paralysis of infinite delay -- complexity most resonates with me. Most concepts that are not Calculus are really pretty simple ? take a loan, for instance. When somebody obscures that process in layers of adjustable, derivative, LIBOR-based organic semi-solids, you may be assured that they are really just taking more of your money than necessary. Alternatively, try making sense of a food label. Regardless of the stated contents, you're eating ? I'm out of euphemisms -- bullshit.
Indeed, most of what passes for contemporary journalism is merely timid, lazy recordation ? so much so that the Daily's brand of researched exposee has brought much-needed fresh air. As several commentators noted in a Stewart-inspired NYT roundtable, all journalism has a viewpoint; it is media's job Not to merely to present the controversy, but to fearlessly probe several layers deep, to expose nonsense and ulterior motivation: to rake the, uh, muck.
Of course, it was also fun to see the return of the show's many and talented alums. And to have Jersey's finest social critic serenaded at the end by Jersey's finest band was spot-on ? E-Street's 'Land of Hope and Dreams' (This Train), morphing into 'Born to Run' seemed a perfect send-off, at least to this Delaware-bred boy.
But then there's the pain. First, of course, is the regret of watching this incarnation of the show, for the last time. We've known this day was coming since February, and suspected it before that, grace of the hiatus Stewart took the year before. But the one-two punch of Stewart and Colbert packed a considerable comedic wallop, and now they've both moved-on. Sweet sorrow.
It was also clear that Stewart himself was conflicted (I've seen his movies ? it's clear that he wasn't acting, here). We watched his pain. He knew he was perfectly matched to his creation, and he mentioned more than once that he understands both the privilege he's enjoyed and the likelihood that nothing in his future professional life will match it. In my own working life, I've had patches where I have been fully, joyfully engaged with others toward a common goal ? firing on all cylinders. It is exceedingly fulfilling stuff ? I almost envy that he got to have if for sixteen straight years, but it's gotta leave a mark when you're done.
In addition, free expression has lost a champion, at least for a time. It's no accident that 'Rosewater, ' the movie he directed last year, was about a man imprisoned for his ideas. A dissident, critical voice is a precious thing and a secular sacred trust. Part of Stewart's clarity and intention reflected his understanding of the burden of that responsibility.
Finally, though, for me it hurts to recognize that it all didn't work.* All that genius, insight and genuineness hasn't made a fundamental difference. Once the abuses Stewart-and-company laid bare were exposed, I think many viewers thought that it would somehow lead to better behavior from the uber-rich and powerful. We expected our water to be carried, as if transparency and embarrassment alone would make the difference. I believe that there was a smug complacency among viewers born of the righteousness of the Stewart/Colbert treatment.
It's important to recognize that monied interests are the honey badgers of the culture ? take your best shot, make 'em look silly, they just don't care. Recent decades have seen a nearly unprecedented influence of money ? on campaigns and the candidates who may now be legally bought (note Mr. Trump's candid debate appraisal, as a routine purchaser thereof), on voting rights, and on useful regulations in commerce, gun practices and the global environment to name a few subjects. It proceeds apace, and the Fox News errant zoo-keepers are busy determining who the next GOP nominee will be.
Despite Springsteen's great, hopeful lyrics:
... leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunshine and all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Oh, meet me in a land of hope and dreams.
I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing ...
... the train ride to the land of hope and dreams is over, and not much has changed. At least not yet. That's what hurts the most.
* I should acknowledge that there's a split of opinion in my household on this subject. My wise and more optimistic Intended believes that younger people -- the demographic that has signed-off network and cable news in favor of the Dailys, have been influenced. And that change will come. I hope she's right.