But in assessing and appreciating his contribution to TV, I'd also like to give him due credit for two accomplishments that are often overlooked.
The first: He's a master of the smooth transition -- not just of comic segues, but of personnel.
The second? He's never claimed the title, much less felt comfortable with it, but make no mistake: Jon Stewart has been the best TV critic we've had on television in more than 50 years.
About the transition thing, consider this: When Stewart inherited "The Daily Show" from Craig Kilborn in 1999, he took that host's signature bit, a lightning-round interview segment called "Five Questions," and spent the first week of his tenure slowly phasing it out, dropping one question a day until the segment was retired officially.
He also took one correspondent who was a veteran of Kilborn's tenure, showcased him on Day 1 of his own show
, and eventually pushed him out of the nest and into a spinoff show of his own, which he co-executive produced. That correspondent? Stephen Colbert.
Whenever a correspondent left "The Daily Show" nest, there were others, usually equally good, to smoothly take his or her place. When Stewart, who was also the show's executive producer, wanted to take off for a summer to direct his first film, he anointed John Oliver as his temporary replacement. Oliver knocked it out of the park and is now doing Stewart-level work on his weekly "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" on HBO.
When Colbert ended his Comedy Central showcase series to prepare for his upcoming replacement of David Letterman on CBS's "Late Show" (another orderly transition), "Daily Show" Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore was chosen to fill the time slot. And in the past few months, Wilmore's "The Nightly Show" has come into its own with impressive, brave, strong pieces on Cosby, the South Carolina shooting and the Confederate flag.
It won't be until September 28 that we witness and evaluate the worthiness of Stewart's "Daily Show" successor, Trevor Noah. But consider: Stewart is saying goodbye with Noah not only selected, but supported, and Stewart's comedy news-analysis legacy is reflected weekly on both "The Nightly Show" and "Last Week Tonight" -- all a testament to both the value of Stewart's attention to the power of transition, and the transition of power.
And then there's his work as a TV critic -- and when I talk about this, it's personal.
TV doesn't usually pay attention to TV, other than to repeat, in smaller bites, what other shows have said or done the day before. What Stewart has done with television, by contrast, is what he's done with the politicians and other newsmakers he covered all those years on "The Daily Show." He used specific examples -- many of them clips often going back years -- to make the point that television news outlets weren't doing as good a job as they should.
Sometimes he questioned the fact-checking at Fox News. Other times, he pointed to the absurdity of over-hyped weather-related coverage on The Weather Channel or "The Today Show," or an overreliance on high-tech gadgetry on some cable news shows. But he's watching carefully, and criticizing honestly, and backing up his criticisms with examples as well as very clever humor.
As a TV critic myself for 40 years now, I can think of only one other person in television history who has done as much, and as well, to both criticize and lampoon the medium on which he starred. And you really have to reach back for this combination.
That would be Ernie Kovacs, who, in the 1950s and early '60s turned his satiric eye to TV weathercasts, fantasy shows and the then-ubiquitous Westerns with a devastatingly accurate and amusing critique of television itself.
Just like Jon Stewart.
I'm not privy to the contents of tonight's extended program, which begins at 11 p.m. ET, I'm guessing it will include at least two things: a changing-of-the-guard appearance by Noah, and one last flex of Stewart's muscles as a TV critic.
I'll miss this guy-- a lot -- because he was a welcome dose of end-of-the-day levity and sanity, in an insane world. But he gave us 16 years, which is a much longer run than we get from most TV shows.
For 16 years, he's covered it all -- and for that, a simple "Thank you" hardly seems enough.
But, for the record, Jon Stewart: "Thank you."