This past year has felt like an extended period of mourning for TV lovers, as one iconic legend or program after another has bowed out. David Letterman, Stephen Colbert (and his "Colbert" persona) and Craig Ferguson stepped down from their respective late-night talk shows after legendary runs, while several of the past decade's finest TV shows—including Mad Men, Justifed and Parks and Recreation—also headed into the television sunset.
So by the time Jon Stewart got around to signing off of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Thursday night, capping a 16-year run that forever changed the role of comedy in political and current events, it may have seemed like there would be no tears left to shed and no possible way of topping all the memorable finales that had come before it.
But—of course!—Stewart proved us wrong and took us by surprise one last time. His Daily Show finale was the finest, funniest and most poignant TV farewell of them all. In shifting the show's focus from himself to his staff—both present and former—he ended up providing the perfect tribute to his own unparalleled legacy.
Stewart opened the show with one last take on current events, discussing the just-completed first Republican presidential debate (which didn't actually occur until after the episode had taped). "It was incredible … so articulate!" said Stewart, concisely—and presciently—summarizing a debate whose highlight/lowlight seemed to be Donald Trump taking a potshot at Rosie O'Donnell as if it were 2006 all over again.
But the post-debate coverage quickly turned into a reunion of his former Daily Show correspondents, who popped up one by one to say their goodbyes: Samantha Bee, Steve Carell ("I never left. Becoming an international superstar is just something I did while waiting for my next assignment."), Larry Wilmore, Josh Gad (who even remembered he had been a correspondent?), Olivia Munn, Ed Helms, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver and more than a dozen more. It was a stunning assembly of comedic talent.
Each correspondent was given one last moment to shine on the show, as Stewart lobbed a final ball in the center of the plate for them to tee off on. It was a wondrous, hilarious trip down memory lane, and far more effective than a clips package of the show's greatest moments.
Many of Stewart's favorite comedic punching bags sent him off with some swings of their own. "So long, jackass!" said Sen. John McCain, while Bill O'Reilly said, "Have fun feeding your rabbits, quitter!" Original Daily Show host Craig Kilborn also made a brief appearance ("I knew you were going to run this thing into the ground!"), while the next host, Trevor Noah, showed up and began measuring the Daily Show set during one of Stewart's segments.
While Stewart was clearly trying to keep his emotions at arm's length through the program, Colbert wasn't having any of it. After the Lord of the Rings fan compared Stewart and himself to Frodo and Sam (Colbert explained that he is Sam in that scenario because "one of us is adult size and doesn't have hairy toes"), he paused—at Stewart's obvious discomfort, as he tried in vain to keep from breaking down—to praise the host on behalf of his 16 years worth of staffers.
"You are infuriatingly good at your job," Colbert told Stewart. "All of us who were lucky enough to work for you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people, for having known you." The moment culminated in a big Daily Show group hug with all the former correspondents, perhaps the night's emotional highlight.
But Stewart wasn't done spotlighting his staffers. In a one last fit of production brilliance, he narrated a Goodfellas-esque tracking shot that swooped through the Daily Show offices, giving Stewart a chance to single out each of them in hilarious fashion. I particularly enjoyed that the studio production team, tasked with watching all the cable news channels, had blood streaming from their eyes.
We were treated to a final passionate, inspired Stewart rant, one of his finest, as he declared "bullshit is everywhere," and passed the baton to his viewers, charging them to carry on his cause: "The best defense against bullshit is vigilance, so if you smell something, say something."
As the show wound down, Stewart told the audience that he was refusing to say goodbye, noting, "I'm just gonna say, I'm going to get a drink. And I'm sure I'll see you guys before I leave."
Then, an inspired capper: Stewart's final "moment of zen" was a goodbye performance from fellow New Jersey icon Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who performed "Land of Hope and Dreams" ("you don't know where you're going now/but you know you won't be back") and "Born to Run."
"Thank you. Goodnight," Stewart said, his final words as Daily Show host.