Skip to Content

Jon Stewart, the 21st Century’s Johnny Carson

Jon Stewart, the 21st Century’s Johnny Carson

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. Ah, who could forget 1992?

If you’ve had it up to here with this week’s outpouring of turgidity and grandiloquence, if 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 and before Paar, Steve Allen really invented Carson’s wheel(house). And Carson’s work was a considerable influence on his successors, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien. SNL’s “Weekend Update” similarly invented the skeletal version of what would become Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead’s The Daily Show, which Stewart took over from Craig Kilborne in 1999, and Stewart’s work is a considerable influence on his peers and successors, Stephen Colbert (taking over for Letterman soon), John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Larry Wilmore.

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’s retiring in the face of an increasingly fragmented internet landscape, and as Carson didn’t do CNN, Stewart doesn’t do Twitter (yet).

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 ways that suited their eras, they each served as national B.S. detectors. In the end, it felt like Johnny got us through the divisive 1960s and the following Me Decades, while Jon got us through the post-9/11 period of desperately needing both information and sense-of-humor perspective.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Let’s be clear: Johnny and Jon ran two different types of shows; that’s why one 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. Carson favored the symmetry of going out after an even 30 years; Stewart is less of a round number-hitter, and leaves after around 16 1/2. When you look at those figures you realize it’s possible, though hard to measure, that Stewart tallied the same amount of laughs as Carson in about one-fourth of the total time on the air. But let’s not distract 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 shtick-ier after Prime Time. And they took two approaches to the same mission: keeping America both well-informed and laughing.

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, and Madonna. Carson and 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 in – pop culture. Politicians right up to the President winced when they heard that Carson or Stewart had joked about them, but they always tuned in to learn what they’d said. (It’s hard to imagine that our last two Presidents have read every word said about them by everyone on TV.) Stewart did pop culture, but he more directly targeted the media and politics, and a lot of people trusted him to keep them informed. If a tree falls in the forest after Stewart’s retirement, will its sound still matter?

Stewart reflected 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, and Jay Leno was known as a nice guy, but tabloid rumors swirled that behind the scenes, they could be quite cutting. Even in the tabloids, Stewart never had that reputation. He turned on the charm and the shame in equal measures, never for one second putting himself above even a lesser comic.

Johnny Carson

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. The country has moved toward more ethnic pluralism, though The Daily Show hasn’t led this as much as it’s sometimes given credit for. Many have heard about Wyatt Cenac feeling uncomfortable being black and in the writer’s room; one thing not mentioned in those articles is that The Daily Show only hired its first non-white correspondents in 2006, Aasif Mandvi and Larry Wilmore, promptly given the questionable titles “Muslim Correspondent” and “Black Correspondent.” What a ten-year turnaround: Stewart’s departure leaves two non-whites anchoring Comedy Central’s 11:00 and 11:30 positions.

President Obama was right when he appeared on The Daily Show earlier this week and called Stewart “a gift to the country.” All those Emmys—20 in total—were well-earned. All that research for all those clips remains mind-boggling. Stewart not only made Comedy Central a destination, 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, 36 weeks a year.

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. No matter how good Trevor Noah turns out to be – despite his controversial old tweets, let’s presume 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.