When thinking about Jon Stewart’s career on Comedy Central’s the “Daily Show,” it's hard to get a better analogy than the bemused “are you kidding me” look that he’s perfected over 16 years of satirizing political news.
As Mr. Stewart wraps up his final week at the helm of the program, his final slate of guests – all comedians – seems to underscore his consistent assertion that he isn’t a journalist and instead an entertainer.
But this self-characterization, to critics and supporters alike, can seem overly naive about his outsized role as a shaper of public opinion, especially among younger Americans.
"I'd be hard pressed to think of a person who spoke with the same amount of authority to that big of a group of people," Eric Lesser, a former Obama White House aide and now Massachusetts state senator, told Politico.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called Stewart a modern-day Will Rogers and Mark Twain and pointed to his sway among younger voters.
“He talked to young people. Young people watch him. Young people vote,” Senator McCain told Politico. “So I don’t think that there’s any doubt that with his “comedy” that he had an effect on the workings of government.”
In his years at the "Daily Show," he drew a large, loyal audience, especially among young people. Even his critics credited his influence in explaining and digesting politics and policy to the public.
Stewart began to gain prominence during an age when traditional news anchors were losing their position in the popular culture, a contrast made all the more stark in the wake of the downfall of Brian Williams.
A 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centers found that among the Daily Show’s bread-and-butter liberal viewers, 17 percent said that the comedy program was their most trusted news source, eclipsing CNN.
Stewart has used this accumulation of public trust in informing public opinion on issues he is personally passionate about including the government’s treatment 9/11 first responders and veterans. In a retrospective on his tenure at Comedy Central, Rolling Stone labeled him the “Last Honest Newsman.”
"Stewart turned 'The Daily Show' into the crucial news source in the Bush years," writes Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone.
But when it recently came out that Stewart had a series of meetings with President Obama in the White House, conservative commentators castigated the host, calling him a “propagandist” and a “tool really of the Obama administration.”
Stewart, for his part, has downplayed the significance of the meetings with a signature splash of sarcasm.
“It was a roundtable meeting with the president, Elvis – still alive – Minister Farrakhan, and the Area 51 alien,” Stewart said, during his show.
But the uproar itself is indicative of Stewart's political clout. It’s hard to see someone like Brad Pitt or Beyoncé garnering the same criticisms for a White House visit.
"There was always something a little disingenuous about Stewart’s insistence that he is a centrist, free of ideological commitment to anything except truth and sanity. In fact, his politics tend to lean left of center," wrote David Remnick in The New Yorker.
Mr. Remnick traced Stewart's lineage back to Thomas Nast, Will Rogers, and Mort Sahl, "subversive comic spirits who, in varying ways, employ a joy buzzer, a whoopee cushion, and a fun-house mirror to knock the self-regard out of an endless parade of fatuous pols."
While it began as a more conventional news parody show, "The Daily Show" started to hit its stride in 1999 when Stewart replaced former anchor Craig Kilborn. The fresh host gave the show a new look, a new direction and a new focus – politics.
"[I]t’s Jon Stewart, more than anyone else, who has influenced the way we click now. There’s a tribalness to the way we filter information. It’s far more common to seek out sources that echo and flatter our preexisting views than those that challenge them," wrote Andy Greenwald at ESPN's Grantland site in February.
"This isn’t an aspect of his legacy of which Stewart would be proud, but it’s undeniable, especially over the past few years, as 'The Daily Show's' mission has morphed from shouting jokes at the powerful to tossing rocks at the pompous," he added.
His most lasting legacy may be his role as comedic "kingmaker," on the order of Lorne Michaels at 'Saturday Night Live" in his heyday, wrote Hillary Busis at Entertainment Weekly, when Stewart announced his retirement.
"[I]n the end, it may be Stewart's most lasting legacy; if nothing else, it ensures that his comic sensibility (or at least the types of people he finds funny) will be alive and well on television in various forms long after he steps down from his Daily Show seat."
Stewart alumni include comedian and film star Steve Carell; Larry Wilmore, host of "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore;" Michael Che, now at "Saturday Night Live," and Samatha Bee, who is reportedly developing her own show for TBS. Stephen Colbert left Stewart to launch "The Colbert Report" and is about to replace David Letterman at "The Late Show." And John Oliver now hosts his own comedy news program on HBO that has been showered with praise for its segments merging jokes with serious investigative journalism. You get the pattern.
Moreover, Stewart's success set off a wave of imitators that many commentators say makes it unlikely to see the meteoric rise of a similar figure, at least in the near future.
“It’s hard to see someone else like Jon Stewart rising to fame in a media world that’s become so fractured, frantic, and full of every possible flavor of instant news and commentary. Satire is a lot tougher in real time. Calling people out is harder when everyone is doing it,” wrote Ryan McCarthy in The Washington Post.
Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who was tapped for the Daily Show's anchor chair, is scheduled to start on Sept. 28.