Jon Stewart, the long-time star of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, shocked his audience yesterday by announcing that he would be leaving the show this year. In a sign of just how important Stewart and The Daily Show are to modern America, his impending departure from what is, at bottom, a consistently funny comedy show was headline news at such diverse websites as the BBC and CNN Money.
Stewart has sat at the anchor desk of The Daily Show since 1999 — an extraordinarily long tenure in the modern world. For many young adults, he’s been an immutable part of the social landscape for as long as they can remember. With Stewart as the motivating force, The Daily Show has launched the careers of other comedy stars, like Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, but more importantly it has become an essential cultural and political touchstone for a huge swath of the American population. It is amazing, but true, that a large percentage of young Americans routinely get their exposure to news from The Daily Show and identify Stewart as more trusted to provide accurate information than networks like MSNBC.
Commentators may moan that such survey results are a sign of America’s illiteracy — and the growing irrelevance of broadcast and print journalism — but the reality is that people just get their news in different ways now. Stewart and The Daily Show became trusted because they mixed the humor with a healthy dollop of news footage, factoids, and actual interviews of Presidents, political and cultural figures, and world leaders. And, although The Daily Show unquestionably came from a general liberal perspective, Stewart and his crew weren’t afraid to skewer racial politics, the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, and other causes and developments on the left end of the political spectrum.
With Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman, where will younger Americans turn to get their tolerable daily exposure to the world’s events? There’s no guarantee that the new host will capture their confidence, and the risk is that they won’t turn to other sources for such information at all. That should be a significant concern for those who have used The Daily Show to reach the Millennials. If those Millennials (and members of the next generation, which hasn’t yet acquired a catchy title) who have some interest in politics and news aren’t watching The Daily Show, how do you engage them? Jon Stewart’s replacement will have awfully big shoes to fill.