UPDATED with more details: Comedy Central’s late-night Shangri-La is coming to an end. The network tweeted this afternoon that Jon Stewart — the man who made careers, informed political discourse and put a crappy cable news show out of our misery — is stepping down from The Daily Show later this year. The Viacom network tweeted the tragedy this afternoon:
The news leaves the network in a comedy crisis, what with Stewart’s most obvious qualified replacements all having departed Comedy Central for greener pastures.
In summer 2013, MTV Networks Entertainment Group President Doug Herzog — who is credited with, among other things, bringing The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Comedy Central — said how relieved he was at the ratings and critical success of John Oliver as he filled in for Stewart on The Daily Show last summer while Stewart went off make his feature directorial debut with Rosewater (which coincidentally came out on home video today). It comforted the network to know there could be life after Stewart and that The Daily Show would not fall off a cliff should the much-loved Stewart ever decide it’s time to move on.
Unfortunately for Comedy Central, HBO noticed Oliver’s great work as well and poached him; he launched the second season of his lauded Last Week Tonight this past Sunday. Losing Oliver was a tough blow for the network, because Stewart seemed to come back a sadder, wiser guy who seemed itching to move on, and has continued to seem so ever since, leading up to today’s news.
Likewise, Comedy Central’s other late-night star, Stephen Colbert, got pinched by CBS to take over for David Letterman, who’s retiring in May. It remains to be seen if he will continue to be so when he sheds his Colbert Report on-air persona and breathes the stodgier air of CBS. But, while at Comedy Central, he was maybe even more formidable a cultural force than Stewart. Last summer, a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center warned just how much this country lost when Colbert shuttered his Comedy Central show to take over for Letterman. According to the Annenberg report, Colbert Report viewers were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of actual news channels and other, actual-news shows. It was the first study showing that Colbert had done a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing.
If Comedy Central thinks it’s having a hard time replacing Colbert — Larry Wilmore‘s show is getting good reviews but already they’re tinkering with the format and hopefully will lose the Keep It 100 gag that strangles the second half of the show every night — replacing Stewart will be nearly impossible. Here’s a guy who has loomed so large in the pop culture landscape that he won 44% of the vote in a Time magazine poll that had asked “Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster?” Stewart walloped the country’s most-watched evening newscaster, NBC’s Brian Williams, who got 29% of the vote.