NEW YORK — Jon Stewart said goodbye to "The Daily Show" on Thursday, America's foremost satirist of politicians and the media ushered out by Bruce Springsteen and a reunion of the many colleagues that he worked with during 16 years as host.
"Guess what? Stewart said. "I've got big news. This is it."
Armed with a razor-sharp wit and research team adept at finding video evidence of hypocrisy or unintentional comedy among the nation's establishment, Stewart turned a sleepy basic-cable entertainment show into a powerful cultural platform. But the 52-year-old comic announced last winter that he was getting restless and it was time to move on.
RELATED: Jon Stewart's last 'Daily Show': A look back at six serious moments
For his finale, he pretended to report on Thursday's Republican presidential debate — which actually happened after the taping — but said he didn't have enough remaining correspondents to talk about all the candidates. That proved to be the vehicle to bring in a long succession of personalities whose careers were jump-started by Stewart when they were on the show, like Aasif Mandvi, Lewis Black, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac.
He'd been away from the show for more than a decade, but Carell said that "becoming an international superstar is just something I did while awaiting my next assignment."
Colbert, who begins in September as David Letterman's replacement on CBS' "Late Show," offered the most heartfelt tribute, saying the accomplishments of Stewart's troupe members through the years was a testament to the example he set.
"You were infuriatingly good at your job," Colbert said.
Some of Stewart's comedy targets appeared in cameos to get in a final word. Wolf Blitzer wished him well, while the screen behind him on the CNN set read, "Screw you, Stewart."
Hillary Clinton bemoaned Stewart leaving "just when I'm running for president. What a bummer."
"So long, jackass," said 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
Even Stewart's long-forgotten predecessor as "The Daily Show" host, Craig Kilborn, showed up to say, "I knew you'd run this thing into the ground."
Stewart offered a soliloquy on what was his central job as host — finding doubletalk in the public arena and exposing it for the world to see, although he used a stronger term for it. He urged viewers to be vigilant in watching for it themselves.
"If you smell something, say something," he said.
Fellow New Jersey resident Springsteen provided Stewart's last "moment of Zen." He performed "Land of Hope and Dreams" at the host's request, and then "Born to Run," with guests clustered around like it was the band at a high school dance.
Springsteen inspired Stewart to follow his own career dreams, and also Thursday's farewell. Stewart said he admired how the songwriter described his career as an ongoing conversation with his fans.
"Rather than saying 'goodbye' or 'good night,' I'm just going to say, 'I'm going to get a drink, and I'm sure I'll see you guys before I leave,'" Stewart said.
The finale inspired audience members, at least one of whom began waiting in line for a ticket the middle of the previous night. They were sworn to secrecy before leaving, although some couldn't wait to spill the beans.
"From start to finish, it was fantastic," said audience member Randy Gunnell, 29, of Westchester County, New York. "It was emotional, people crying all over the place."
Stewart's finale went longer than the traditional half hour, knocking out "The Nightly Show." That show's host, Larry Wilmore, faked annoyance to Stewart: "Black shows matter, Jon," he said.
RELATED: Looking back at great Daily Show moments
It was the third major farewell for a late-night television personality in eight months. Colbert, ended "The Colbert Report" in December, and Letterman signed off in May.
Fox News Channel, one of Stewart's favorite targets through the years, was one of the institutions that Stewart had noted on Wednesday was as strong today despite his comedic barbs. That network's chairman, Roger Ailes, said in an interview that Stewart was a brilliant comedian and nice guy who has a bitter view of the world.
"He's been after us for years," Ailes told The Hollywood Reporter. "Occasionally we pay attention. We think he's funny. We never took it seriously and he never made a dent in us."
With thousands of words in tributes being written on his behalf the past few weeks, Stewart hasn't granted exit interviews. He showed up for a podcast done by his show's executive producers, spending most of the half hour talking about the menus for catered meals at the office — including a lengthy discussion of whether egg sandwiches were better on English muffins or Kaiser rolls.
Trevor Noah replaces Stewart as host next month, inheriting most of the same staff. Noah appeared on Stewart's finale with measuring tape, jokingly checking out the set.