In the final installment of his satisfying summer run as guest host of "The Daily Show," Jon Oliver thanked impulse-control-challenged New York politician Anthony Weiner for weeks of comic fodder.
But his biggest thanks should have gone to Jon Stewart.
Stewart returns Tuesday to a "Daily Show" that will greatly benefit from his restored presence, but no longer needs him behind the fake news desk to guarantee laughs. That's a tribute to the host, who has put an indelible satirical stamp on Comedy Central’s marquee program since replacing Craig Kilborn in 1999, while building a strong franchise that can thrive without him.
Oliver, while initially a tad nervous during interview segments, brought his own brand of energy, exasperated outrage and verbal facility to the show (Weiner is "the man whose name is so perfect for the scandal he was caught up in, it rekindled my faith in God,” he quipped). He proved a fine choice, but any of the show’s comic correspondents – Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Aasif Mandvi, Lewis Black and Larry Wilmore, among them – likely could have done the job.
Stewart and his creative crew's biggest legacy might be assembling a consistently strong supporting team over the years. The program has provided springboards for the likes of Ed Helms, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, whose faux conservative commentator character, unlike Stewart, might be irreplaceable. The show's taken a cue from "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels, who has turned the churn of comic talent into an art (even if he has his work cut out for him this coming season).
Oliver's consistently entertaining stint raises questions about what's next for Stewart, who clearly is looking to stretch with less than two years left on his Comedy Central contract. He took the summer off to direct “Rosewater,” the true story of a journalist imprisoned in Iran.
You wouldn't have known that from “The Daily Show,” as Oliver gave a different – and funny – excuse for Stewart's absence every night (“He remains trapped in a Chilean mine with 18 other talks show hosts,” is a favorite, along with a bawdy crack involving a then-pregnant Kate Middleton). Even amid his absence, Stewart remained a presence on a show that, thanks largely to his efforts, can go on without him.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.