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Essay: Jon Stewart: So Funny It Hurts

Stephen Lovekin
Getty Images
Jon Stewart will be leaving "The Daily Show" after 16 years as its host.

Later tonight, on Comedy Central, is the finale of John Stewart’s run as host of “The Daily Show,” the iconic sort-of news show.  Lake Effect essayist Tom Matthews is going to miss it, which he expressed through his essay:

It was one of the tens of thousands of lines that Jon Stewart delivered during his 16 years on "The Daily Show." It was December 2004, and more and more Americans were demanding that the Bush administration get us out of Iraq.

Stewart — protesting mockingly in the voices of those who dragged us into that nightmare — pleaded: "We can't leave now! The body armor is just showing up!"

The laugh was hearty, followed instantaneously by the recognition of its brutal, not-at-all funny truth: American soldiers were dying because their commanders sent them to war criminally unprotected. Troops were scrounging for scrap metal and crudely fixing it to their vehicles in a desperate attempt to keep from being murdered by bullets and improvised explosive devices.

Donald Rumsfeld, with that blithe, dismissive shrug, famously dismissed this fact with: "As you know, you go to war with the army you have...." He was matter-of-factly conceding that American soldiers were being sent on what were essentially suicide missions because lifesaving gear was still lagging behind 20 months after the war began.

With just a handful of words, Stewart had laid bare the unspinnable truth of the carnage that was being carried out in our name.

Now jump forward 11 years, and calculate the lives lost, bodies ruined, minds broken, dollars wasted and terrorists inflamed as Iraq continues to have its way with us. If George Bush had no business standing under that "Mission Accomplished" banner, neither does Jon Stewart.

The difference is, Stewart would agree. Throughout his tenure, he steadfastly denied he had the ability to change any of the things he railed against. The proof lay just a mile away, that's the distance between his Manhattan studio and Fox News.

As Stewart removes himself from the battlefield, Fox triumphantly marches on, netting a billion dollars a year.

Sure, "The Daily Show" skewered corporate and political outrages with pleasing regularity. But politicians are just the rancid goo that dribbles out of the caldron that Fox stirs nightly.

It was always Fox that drew Stewart's most skilled dissection. He used the network's own content to prove incontrovertibly how its business model is built entirely on hypocrisy, the strategic exploitation of tragedy and the inflaming of the persecution and paranoia that churns inside its viewers.

Within the past year, at the end of a particularly savage indictment, Stewart was reduced to screaming at Fox red-faced into the camera, "F--- you!!!!!" This may have been the moment he realized it was time to walk away. The prospect of impotently gnashing his teeth at yet another bile-spewing freak show of a GOP campaign season had to have been soul-crushing.

Ironically, it was in a recent "Daily Show" interview with a Fox host that Stewart boiled his plight down to a single word.

The Fox host accused Stewart of being cynical, which he strenuously rejected. He's an optimist, the father of two young kids insisted. What she detected in him was something else.

"It's despair," he said sadly.

Stewart must have been cheered the past few weeks, as Obamacare, gay marriage and the Confederate flag all fell the way that his on-air sympathies leaned. But these issues have only provoked Fox's nation-dividing agenda, with a whole squadron of candidates ready to wrestle in the ideology mud pit through November 2016.

It is going to be ugly; as much ugly as a billion dollars can buy. And Jon Stewart will be left to scream at his TV along with the rest of us.

Tom Matthews is a freelance writer who lives in Wauwatosa. A version of this commentary first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.