‘The Daily Show’ finale: Laughs, tears, cameos, and one final ‘bullshit’ warning

All through the run-up to Jon Stewart's final “Daily Show” last night, fans were treated to clips of Stewart's greatest hits and best running gags, be it his disdain for Arby's or his impression of Mitch McConnell by way of Cecil Turtle from “Looney Tunes.”

Stewart opened Wednesday night's penultimate episode by looking at the notion of Stewart's “Daily Show” as a savage “destroyer of worlds,” by replaying some of his harshest attacks on ISIS, the banks that got us into the financial crisis, and FOX News. Each look back concluded with news footage proving that not only had Stewart not successfully ruined any of his foes, but that they were all more powerful than before.

“The world is demonstrably worse than when I started!” he vented. “Have I caused this?!?!?”

It was an appropriate, and probably necessary, note to hit. For all that Stewart has been rightly celebrated as a watchdog against the dishonesty rampant throughout politics and media – and, to many of his viewers, a more trusted newsman than his allegedly more serious counterparts at Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC – there's only so much even the best satirical newscast can accomplish. These final weeks of his “Daily Show” had celebrated the many fine and funny things Stewart did over 16 years, but as an arch-enemy of exaggeration and lies, it would have been out of character for him to not acknowledge that he ultimately provided far more laughter than substantial change in policy or public discourse.

And with that note out of the way on Wednesday, Thursday's beautiful series finale could focus on the very real aspects of Stewart's legacy, starting with the amazing collection of talent he and his staff assembled over those 16 years. In an opening segment that consumed nearly the entire running time of a traditional “Daily Show” episode, 28 past and present “Daily Show” correspondents – everyone from Steve Carell and Josh Gad to late '90s mainstays Mo Rocca and Vance DeGeneres – came out to pay homage to Stewart and riff on their on-screen personae. (Even Wyatt Cenac, whose “WTF with Marc Maron” discussion of a fight he once had with Stewart provided the one ugly bump of this victory lap, turned up, for a joke about how awkward things now were between them.) 

The trip down memory lane concluded, as it should have, with Stephen Colbert coming out to say goodbye to the man who made his own career possible. At first, he and Stewart joked around about a “Lord of the Rings” metaphor where Stewart was Frodo and Colbert was Sam, but then Colbert stunned his old boss by halting the attempt to go to commercial so he could say some more heartfelt words. As Stewart, who Colbert said had told people to never thank him, squirmed and protested, Colbert showered genuine praise on Stewart both for what he brought to the show (“You were infuriatingly good at your job!”) and the huge opportunities he provided for Colbert and the rest of the correspondents. By the end of it, Stewart was trying to duck his face out of view of the camera to hide how much he was crying. It was “The Daily Show” equivalent of when Bette Midler reduced Johnny Carson to tears on his penultimate “Tonight Show” – only with more jokes, like Colbert's insistence that he was the “Son of a poor Appalachian turd miner” saved from getting “dung lung” by Stewart.

That segment – which also featured sarcastic farewells from many of the politicians and news anchors who had been Stewart's targets over the years, plus original “Daily Show” host Craig Kilborn – was followed by a “Goodfellas”-style tracking shot (scored to The Crystals' “Then He Kissed Me”) through “The Daily Show” offices to meet the many staffers who contributed so much to the on-air product without the fame of a Stewart or John Oliver. Together, those two segments were Stewart's way of saying that these people – the ones who worked on-camera and the many more who worked behind it – were the show's legacy, far more than any tangible change he was largely unable to effect in the awful way our media and politics function.

Still, Stewart made one last attempt at getting his message across, with a blunt and searing commentary about how “bullshit is everywhere” – in politics, in news, and in every accepted part of our modern lives, down to the iTunes user agreement.

Having concluded 16 years of silliness and savagery, and clearly overcome with the realization that he was about to voluntarily leave what he called “the most beautiful place I have ever been,” Stewart took one of the holdover elements from the Kilborn era and flipped it, promising the audience “my moment of zen.” It turned out to be Stewart's fellow New Jerseyans Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who tore through “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the climax of “Born to Run” as Stewart and his many co-workers hugged, danced, and sang along before Stewart said his final words in this job: “Thank you. Good night.”

It was a love-fest, as befits a show adored for so long by so many, but laced with enough humor throughout (including Oliver mocking Stewart for having to deal with commercials, and Larry Wilmore complaining that “The Nightly Show” got bumped because Stewart's finale was running long) to not feel like hagiography.

It was long and self-indulgent at times, but almost all of that was in service to the people around Stewart, rather than himself, and the joy of everyone to be together one last time was palpable.

It was the perfect goodbye. I think I'll go to Arby's to celebrate it.