A Final Audience With Jon Stewart

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Jon Stewart hosts Comedy Central's 'Night of Too Many Stars,' February 28, 2015.Credit: AP

One of the most sought-after tickets in New York these days is to a recording of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The television show will end on August 6, so Stewart’s fans besieged Comedy Central’s website to get a free ticket to one of the last recordings. The tickets soon ran out, and even connections don’t help.

True, the person currently grabbing all the headlines is David Letterman, who ends his hosting stint on “The Late Show” next Wednesday. But I prefer Stewart. Consequently, I was one of those (successfully) besieging the website. I thought it would be nice to say a slightly more personal goodbye to the man I’d spent 30 minutes with every night for the last 10 years.

This is the second time I’ve seen him record the show. The first time was worth the effort. The beauty of seeing Stewart live is that he takes his audience seriously. Before the recording, he comes out and does a short stand-up routine. Others also do this, but in my view Stewart’s warm-up is the best. That alone was worth the effort of getting a ticket.

And so it was this time, too. After about an hour at the Manhattan studio and a warm-up set by Paul Mecurio – another super-talented stand-up – Stewart came out and invited the audience to ask him questions, around which he would build his own warm-up.

I asked him why on earth he had decided to end his show. After all, he has the world’s best job.

True, Stewart replied, but a man has to know when the time has come to quit the world’s best job. Moreover, he’s sure his replacement, Trevor Noah, will be excellent.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to ask a follow-up.

Others asked Stewart questions like what’s his favorite drink (beer); why he mocks Philadelphia (he loves it really); and what he’ll do when the next U.S. presidential election gets underway next year (try to stay as far away as possible).

And what will he do after leaving “The Daily Show”? Stewart is currently keeping his plans under wraps, and perhaps he doesn’t have any yet. What’s certain, said someone who knows him, is that he’ll direct another movie. But his first film, “Rosewater” – about an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was jailed while working for Newsweek in Iran in 2009 – earned respectable but not rave reviews (71 percent positive on the Rotten Tomatoes website, for example). Maybe he shouldn’t have quit the day job.

I didn’t really learn anything new about Stewart from the recording. But there’s something attractive about his gestures, his way of speaking and his barbs, large and small.

Sharp as a razor

In the show I watched, Stewart as usual poked fun at the Republicans. For instance, he dressed up as Carly Fiorina, who recently announced her candidacy for president and has touted her business career as proof she can revive the U.S. economy. Stewart wondered whether earning millions of dollars as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, while firing tens of thousands of workers and also failing to lead the company to any impressive achievements, was really the answer to America’s ills.

The guest on the show was veteran country singer Willie Nelson, who still brings in the crowds. He came to promote his new autobiography, “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” in which, among other things, he describes his fondness for pot. But the interview with Nelson was rather boring.

In truth, Stewart’s monologues are his forte, while his interviews with guests are generally weaker. The guests come to promote a book or film, and Stewart, who can be sharp as a razor, usually isn’t too hard on them.

But he violated this custom when he recently interviewed former New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who, in the run-up to the Iraq war, reported extensively about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That claim helped justify the decision to go to war, but later proved false.

Miller just published a book (“The Story: A Reporter’s Journey”) in which she argued that her reports, despite being proven wrong, were based on serious journalistic work. She explained that all her sources within the CIA and the Bush Administration had been united in saying WMDs were present, and journalists ultimately report what their sources tell them. But Stewart demolished her.

Miller was undoubtedly wrong – as many other people were, whether innocently or not. But the thing that still troubles Stewart about that mistaken war is the fact that nobody has yet taken responsibility for its disastrous outcome.

Stewart’s impending departure is also the end of an era for Comedy Central, his home for the last 20 years. John Oliver, Stewart’s senior British correspondent, has left for HBO and is enjoying great success with “Last Week Tonight.” Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, is going to occupy Letterman’s well-padded chair at CBS. Some of Comedy Channel’s other correspondents and writers are also leaving or about to leave.

The big question is whether Trevor Noah can fill Stewart’s big shoes. Larry Wilmore, Colbert’s time-slot replacement, isn’t that funny on “The Nightly Show,” and so far hasn’t proved to be a good substitute. It also turns out that Comedy Central’s budget is shrinking.

One of the most creative channels on U.S. television undoubtedly needs a shot in the arm. But it’s unclear if that’s going to happen anytime soon.

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