Seven minutes past midnight on August 7, Jon Stewart rolled away from the desk at the Daily Show on Comedy Central for the last time. The familiar face of integrity and truth, the companion of frustrated Americans since before I could tie my own shoes, has retired from skewering the idiocy of America and its politics. The man himself let the audience know this is not the last we have heard of him, but simply a pause in the conversation.
Coinciding with the FOX News coverage of the GOP debate, Stewart’s final performance as the host of the Daily Show delivered something important. Those who tuned in witnessed the portrait of a man who mattered in a very real way. Selfless until the end, he spent his final show highlighting others, like correspondents old and new, or a short video featuring the staff who work to make the Daily Show possible. He showered gratitude upon every soul involved or affected in the time of his tenure, even Arby’s. Quietly pleading to avoid the spotlight, Stewart surrendered his attempt to escape into the second commercial break, conceding the moment to his protégé, Stephen Colbert. Unscripted and stripped of any insincerity, Colbert expressed exactly what needed to be said about the man next to him, as Stewart did his best to smile away the waterworks:
“Here’s the thing, Jon. You said to me and to many other people here years ago never to thank you, because we owe you nothing. It is one of the few times I have known you to be dead wrong. We owe you, and not just what you did for our careers by employing us to come work on this tremendous show that you made. We owe you because we learned from you. We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect. You are infuriatingly good at your job[...]okay, so Jon, and it’s almost over, I know you are not asking for this, but on behalf of so many people whose lives you changed over the past sixteen years, thank you. And now, I believe your line—and correct me if I’m wrong—is ‘We’ll be right back.’”
Before the camera cut away, the crowd erupted and all of the guests who had appeared earlier in the show mobbed the little man’s desk chair, crushing him from view with a great big bear hug, jumping up and down with gratitude.
When it came time to end the final episode, for the first and only time in sixteen years, Stewart signed off the Daily Show by saying, "And now, my moment of Zen." Stage right, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band belted a moving rendition of "Land of Hope and Dreams," followed by the bittersweet last stanza of "Born to Run." It was a joyous conclusion, a performance which was paid forward long ago, but not with cash.
Chris Hardwick began his show @Midnight with a few respectful words as the "Daily Show" credits on the left-hand side of the screen rolled out the end of an era. I sat stunned in a dark room, processing. There was a lot to digest, but I was struck by the ultimate value of one small man’s influence in the lives of so many others. His standard of giving is one thing every person is capable of achieving. Stewart cared so much: about the well-being of America and its citizens, and about the lives of those who worked with him and knew him. It matters to mean something to others. As Colbert pinpointed, it is not just what Stewart did for their careers, but what he did for them as people, how he helped them grow, and the opportunities he extended to them, opening the same door someone showed him when he was still kicking around searching for the right avenue for his talents.
The faith I share with Stewart holds the Talmudic idea of Tzedakah (TSEH-dah-KAH) in the highest regard. Roughly translated, Tzedakah means charity, but it is far more than giving to others, and it applies to Jews and Gentiles alike. Tzedakah manifests itself in various ways, each with a different level of merit. The lowest form is to give begrudgingly to another. Jon Stewart was a man who gave selflessly when and where he could, and asked for nothing in return. Countless times, he performed the most meritorious Tzedakah, which is to enable another to become self-reliant. I realize what I saw was a spirited offering of heartfelt recognition to the man who asked for none. Thank you Jon Stewart, talk to you soon.