NEW YORK — Jon Stewart's fans were gobsmacked by the sad news he delivered on Tuesday's edition of "The Daily Show": He's leaving his phony anchor desk and ending his reign as phony newsman, and the loss is to real news.
"This show doesn't deserve an even slightly restless host and neither do you," he told his audience. He said he might depart in July, September or maybe December. He didn't say what he means to do next.
To appreciate the impact of his 16-year Comedy Central reign, and the loss his impending exit represents, the distraught viewer need only consider Monday's broadcast.
It was then that Stewart turned his attention to what was the biggest story in the journalism biosphere that night: the scandal surrounding NBC News' Brian Williams.
Wearing a woeful expression, he summed up everyone's befuddlement with crystalline efficiency: "Bri! Why? Why, Bri? Why lie? Sigh."
By then hours upon hours of pontificating, grousing and hollow forecasts from other corners of the media had been focused on Williams, nailed a few days earlier for apparently fudging an account of his experience a decade ago covering the war in Iraq: He seemed to have misremembered that he wasn't, as he had declared repeatedly, shot out of the sky in a military helicopter.
Choppergate seemed custom-made for the cable-news universe. The endless talk supported by few known facts and snap-judgment calls for his dismissal — Off with his (talking) head! — accomplished little.
By contrast, in the tidy eight minutes or so that followed Stewart's silly rhyme, he proposed a shrewd diagnosis for what might have led Williams to muddle his Serious News cred with habitual visits to any talk show (including, of course, "The Daily Show") that would have him, where he could show off his charm as a wit and raconteur.
Stewart called it Infotainment Confusion Syndrome, a brain misfire that occurs, he said, "when the 'celebrity cortex' gets its wires crossed with the 'medulla anchor-gata.'"
Stewart had one more point to make. He mocked the mediaverse for obsessing over Williams' alleged misdeeds: "Finally SOMEONE is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war."
"Never again," he added dramatically, "will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn't have ended up in, if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual (bleep) war."
It was a splendidly crafted satiric fusillade, the sort of cheeky truth-telling no one but a self-styled fake news anchor would dare. And until Williams was suspended by NBC for six months roughly 24 hours later, Stewart had said everything that needed to be said.
Stewart didn't invent satire, but he modernized it and tailored it for an information age ruled by TV and the Internet. In compact "Daily Show" segments, he struck a blow against the flabby boundlessness of cable-news and talk-network fare.
No wonder political leaders, authors, scholars and others with useful things to say flocked to his show right along with celebs who came to pitch their latest projects. Stewart, playing his designated role as court jester, goaded them with humor to get them to say what they meant in ways "serious" interviewers can't or won't. In the process, he usually displayed them to their best advantage.
And on those rare occasions when the news was too awful to abide the usual sassiness and Stewart's passion burned through, viewers knew to take special note. On "The Daily Show," unlike so many "real" news dispensers, everything that happens ISN'T "Breaking News."
As the lead phony anchor, Stewart was the steward for a star system of supporting fake journalists. These included John Oliver, who last year launched HBO's investigative-comedy half-hour, "Last Week Tonight," and Larry Wilmore, who recently bowed in the post-Stewart slot with his as-yet-unproven "Nightly Show."
But Stewart's greatest protege is Stephen Colbert, whose "Colbert Report" was a masterful masquerade presided over by a willful nincompoop. The culture is much the poorer for Colbert's jump to CBS to host the slot vacated by David Letterman in what will likely be a conventional talk show.
And, now, fans have been hit with the second of a double whammy that no one let themselves see coming.
The timing of Stewart's departure could hardly be worse from the viewer's perspective, with the 2016 presidential campaign gearing up. In recent cycles, Stewart had made himself as much a part of the electoral process as ballot-counting disputes.
For that and many other reasons, it's hard to fathom the scope of the void he will leave. As a champion of enlightened phoniness in TV journalism, Stewart has proven himself to be one-of-a-kind, a fake who's unrivalled as the real deal.
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore