Late last week, comedian Wyatt Cenac, a writer and correspondent for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart for nearly five years, appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. There, he claimed that he left the show because of an argument he had with host Jon Stewart. It has been reported that the fight was because Stewart had been using a voice impersonating Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, which Cenac felt was reminiscent of Kingfish, the notoriously racist character on Amos ‘n’ Andy. But that’s not quite right.
Cenac was offended by the voice, and Stewart was furious when Cenac called him out, screaming “F*** off! I’m done with you!” at the comic until Cenac left the building and cried. (He left the show a few months later.) But the key point missing from the anecdote is why Stewart was so sensitive at that particular moment. It wasn’t because of Cenac: It was because of Fox News.
Fox News, eager to take on Stewart any time it could, had been mocking Stewart’s Cain voice for weeks. Bernie Goldberg wrote a piece going after him for it. Essentially every Fox News show, from Fox & Friends to O’Reilly, hit Stewart on “the voice” every night for days. Heck, look who else got in on the fun:
Stewart shot back at Fox News in a segment, the preparation of which apparently involved the Cenac incident:
As Jon Stewart enters his final week as host of The Daily Show, it is worth remembering just how much of his rise parallels that of Fox News. They were ideological opposites, sure, but Fox News’ success also brought out the best, and worst, in Stewart. Jon Stewart started out trying to do political comedy, but as he and his show grew in influence, the comedy became less important than the politics. The show began as political satire, then became a satire of cable news, then ultimately ended up as a cable news show itself. (Albeit one that was a lot funnier than the rest.) Stewart mocked political figures, then became a political figure. He has Fox News to thank.
When Stewart first started at The Daily Show in 1999, it was a surprise: He had long been considered a possible replacement for David Letterman, or Jay Leno, or maybe even a candidate to start some other network talk show. (The presumption that Stewart would be a late-night king was so old it was a prominent joke on the fictional Larry Sanders Show; Larry was always convinced Stewart was about to take his job.) Going to Comedy Central—basic cable—was considered a step below what Stewart deserved. But Stewart was a different kind of comedian: Even his early standup was politically oriented. He wanted the freedom to be more than just Judge Ito jokes. Plus, this was still 1999: People argued that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The environment was less polarized. Stewart could be “liberal” and a “comedian” without being a “Liberal Comedian.” And Roger Ailes had only been at Fox News for three years.
Stewart has claimed his show found its voice during the 2000 election, but to this viewer’s eyes, he didn’t really gain his truest power until Fox News began to take off during the beginning of the Iraq war. Before, Stewart could mock Newt Gingrich, or Donald Rumsfeld, and it felt like general, typical satire with a bit more bite. But Fox News took a certain conservative ideology and, through Ailes’ television genius, weaponized it. Suddenly Stewart had a target that was not only providing him around-the-clock content to mock, he had a target that was enormously powerful. Comedians always talk about the importance of “punching up,” of mocking those in power rather than those lacking it. Fox News provided Stewart with an irresistible punching bag not just because they represented the viewpoint opposite his, but also because they were so good at it. Stewart’s act was always about pointing at people in power and saying, “Can you believe these are the idiots in charge?” Now he could look at Fox News and be equally appalled: “People actually believe this shit?”
And of course, Fox News punched back. This elevated Stewart—it gave him a spot as a representation of The Liberal Viewpoint—which, for a while, led to a delightful back-and-forth between media entities at the peak of their powers, in a way that was mutually beneficial. Stewart became a national, almost global figure, and Fox News got to confirm the “liberal media is lying to you and also they’re all Jewish” narrative that so many of its viewers eat up. Watching Stewart trash Fox News at 11 pm, then Fox News rip him back all day, then Stewart return fire in the evening … it was actual political warfare in a way that real politicians never have the freedom or intestinal fortitude to take part in. It was riveting to watch and, by the way, it was also hilarious.
But this might have elevated Stewart too much. For all the talk of him being an ironist, it’s not really true. (The ironist is Stephen Colbert.) Stewart is far too engaged and passionate about his beliefs, and, frankly, too self-righteous, to ever take a step back and mock from afar. Stewart had to be part of the arena, and began to use his power as The Face Of Liberalism in ways that were more overtly political than satirical. The most famous of this was his Rally To Restore Sanity in October 2010, which started out as a sendup of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally (even when Stewart denied it) but ended up virtually indistinguishable from it. By the time Stewart gave his big earnest tear-filled speech to tens of thousands of devoted fans and supporters, he was just about as far from political comedy as it gets. After all: C-SPAN carried it live, too.
When Colbert took over for David Letterman, he admitted that he had planned on retiring his right-wing character, anyway. Why? In part because it didn’t make a difference. Colbert said he "lost faith in the model" for his character. "I can’t watch that stuff anymore," he added, yet he'd have to see that Fox News was more powerful than ever. It wasn’t so much satirizing as he was preaching to the converted. Stewart—always more full-throatedly liberal and partisan than Colbert—fell prey to this inherent impotence even more, and even though the show was still always funny, as a host, Stewart began to feel more and more to viewers as a participant in the exhausting back-and-forth of ugly political discourse than a respite from it. He also seemed more embittered by it. Over time, more and more segments felt like angry (if amusing) defenses against attacks from the right, followed by more polemics.
Stewart began to represent the liberal viewpoint rather than the comedic one, evidenced by the fact that President Obama would call on him when he needed to sell issues to the base. You could see this wear on Stewart, particularly because when you’re fighting an enemy as powerful and relentless as you are, and with just as many resources, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is winning. It wasn’t until he announced his retirement back in February that his show got some life back into it: It’s now back to being mostly funny, and less stiflingly ideological. You can tell that Stewart is exhausted by the political wars, the constant fighting with Fox News. And you know, the rest of us kind of are, too.
You can expect Stewart’s successors, from Trevor Noah forward, to take a different tack; they’ll be less political, or at least less combative. This is probably going to be a problem for Noah; The Daily Show became a sort of totem for a specific kind of young liberal, and if it doesn’t continue to represent that worldview, there will be backlash. (This was what was at the heart of the Noah Twitter scandal: Our Jon would never say any of that.) Stewart’s show has inspired so many variations, from Colbert to John Oliver to Rachel Maddow to Countdown With Keith Olbermann to even “straight” news shows like our own With All Due Respect—which has incorporated sketches and had its political guests play goofy games, things that would have been inconceivable back in 1999—that it had started to become less like a comedy show, and more like a political one. When you look at the current roster of Comedy Central stars (Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, Broad City), Jon Stewart’s show would seem more at home on MSNBC.
And so much of that is because of Fox News. Stewart picked fights with Fox News for so long and so often that his show came to feel like a funnier, hipper version of what it was mocking. After a while, though, you get tired of fighting. Jon Stewart is going out the way he came in: At last, just concentrating on being funny in a political way rather than political in a funny way. It’s a nice way to wrap up. But Fox News is still here. And in the end, it changed Jon Stewart, I suspect, more than he changed it.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the sub-headline should have said the first Republican debate and Stewart's farewell show are the same night.