Review | Jon Stewart saves ‘The Daily Show’ (and vice versa)

Jon Stewart has returned to “The Daily Show” in top form, armed to the teeth with counterarguments.

Against whom? You might ask. Or what?

The answer is, roughly: everyone.

That’s not exactly a surprise. Stewart, whose brand has long been “scrappy outsider telling it like it is,” is as reflexively defensive as he is winsome (the title of his Apple TV Plus show, “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” doubled as a sendup of his critics). And his return to Comedy Central was — for Stewart and his old show both — a major gamble. “The Daily Show,” at its peak, was an unprecedented phenomenon, and Stewart, despite or perhaps because he kept insisting he was just a clown, amassed enormous influence through his signature mix of humor, clips, facts and carefully modulated outrage.

But “The Daily Show,” which was never the same after he left, has been rudderless since Stewart’s successor Trevor Noah left in 2022. After a year of guest hosts auditioning with no end to the experiment in sight (despite all that new energy and fresh blood), it had started to feel like a dying franchise. The format, too, had come to seem a little vintage, given the speed at which users on social media platforms wittily process (and riff on) current events — frequently in the style Stewart pioneered. Bringing Stewart back for just one day a week (Mondays) would either revitalize “The Daily Show” or confirm it as the zombie some feared it had become.

It didn’t bode well for Stewart’s prospects that “The Problem with Jon Stewart” got canceled after just two seasons or that, ironically, Stewart’s new show sometimes felt a tad belated and derivative, like it was borrowing from “Daily Show” alums such as John Oliver and Samantha Bee. There was, moreover, a sense that the man was very much a product of his time. The political climate has changed so quickly, and become so satire-proof, that not even Jon Stewart could be Jon Stewart anymore.

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Put differently, there was a concern that Stewart, who left at precisely the moment political discourse and social media went haywire, was — as a master satirist — ill-equipped to address the present in ways that parallel the comedian’s own assessment of the current information crisis: “The form of government we love so much is an analog — I don’t want to say dinosaur — but it is analog,” he told “The Daily Show: Ears Edition” podcast this week, explaining why he wanted to come back, “and the world now moves at an increasingly infinite digital pace. And reconciling those two things, I think, is the challenge of the moment for people.”

The reasons Stewart gave for returning in that interview are intriguingly gladiatorial (compared to the Stewart of years past, who insisted on his insignificance): “You have to be present in this conversation and you have to be as relentless and as tenacious as the counternarrative that’s being formed.”

He’s not wrong. But his solution — hosting one’s old TV show one day a week — struck me as a disappointingly “analog” solution, to borrow his terms. The equivalent of dumping a bucket of very high-quality water on a forest fire.

Based on Monday’s performance, however, Stewart can still Stewart when the conditions are right. His return to that desk felt electric. Fans will find him, in broad strokes, anyway, strikingly unchanged. He remains extremely funny, energetic, precise and adept at inflecting a single bit with multiple meanings just by mugging at the camera. He looks good, despite several self-deprecating bits about how much he’s aged (which he deployed in the service of a larger argument about President Biden’s mental capacity, and whether discussing it was fair game). And while he can hit an easy setup out of the park, he’s still best in class at a sly mode of argumentation that catches the viewer unawares, from an angle they don’t quite expect. His insistence that Biden’s competence is fair game, for instance — which Stewart paraphrases as a failure to remember details while being deposed — set up a series of clips of various Trumps claiming, in depositions, that they just couldn’t remember.

He also remains committed to his signature “plague on both your houses” approach to political commentary — one that cemented his appeal as a fair-minded truth-teller in some quarters while also earning him eloquent (and persuasive) critiques. The sharpest of these was probably Steve Almond’s 2012 essay in “The Baffler” which, among other things, charged Stewart with championing a mealy mouthed definition of civility that made “conversation” between opposing sides possible over heated but principled disagreements. Citing Stewart’s notorious, mega-viral exchange with the “Crossfire” co-hosts as the kind of exception that proved the rule — by demonstrating Stewart’s extraordinary gift for passionate confrontation and his deep reluctance to use it — Almond diagnosed “The Daily Show” host with an “aversion to conflict, to making any statement that might depart too dramatically from the cultural consensus and land him at the center of a controversy.”

That bit, at any rate, has changed.

After eight years away from that desk and that chair, Stewart — who used to struggle with being disliked or criticized by his own “side” and whose 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” (with Stephen Colbert) was effectively a jeremiad against jeremiads — seems to be almost itching for a fight.

He isn’t just warring with the media, or with the politicians he routinely skewered as a host, or with Trump, whose candidacy he delightedly mocked before decamping in 2015. He’s needling liberals for protecting Biden from scrutiny, leftists for insisting certain things are unsayable, and the electorate, generally, for caring too much about the 2024 election and too little about the everyday work of improving the country.

Some of the fire was indirect. He buried his take on Israel-Palestine in a bit about Biden’s failure to reassure viewers about his mental capacity at a news conference where he called Israel’s response “over the top.” Stewart mocked Biden for using the same phrase his mother used to gently deride the Super Bowl halftime show — “over the top” — to describe “Israel’s incessant bombing of civilians.”

In general, though, he seems ready to advance a point of view (rather than settle for poking holes in those of others) and eager to stir the pot. That’s not exactly new: Stewart made waves when he appeared on his old friend Stephen Colbert’s show and endorsed the “lab leak” theory of the origins of covid-19 back in 2021. He maintained, in his monologue last night, that Biden deserved more scrutiny (rather than less) specifically because of the threat Trump posed, and that it was the job of the candidate (rather than the voters) to assuage concerns about competence. He took aim at his old network — specifically referencing China and artificial intelligence, the two subjects Apple reportedly objected to him covering. In his conversation with his first guest, Economist Editor in Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes, he advanced the position that a global ideological realignment was underway along axes that had shifted from capitalism vs. communism to “woke and unwoke.”

“That’s what ties Putin to Trump and Orban to Trump,” Stewart said, noting that Putin — talking about orthodox Christianity — sounded like “an AM radio host.”

Opinions will vary on the accuracy of these assessments, but what’s clear is that in his first episode back at “The Daily Show,” Stewart is invested in mapping out his sense of the state of the discourse and his plans for his place within it. That includes the case against him, specifically, which was largely addressed through his special correspondents. Dulcé Sloan, in a bit where she insisted on standing outside the prototypical “American diner” many journalists reported from in 2016, refused to enter and ask voters what they think. “I know what they think. It’s what everybody thinks,” she said, which was that the public needs “more than just the same show with an older yet familiar face.” More pointed still was Jordan Klepper’s mock-hostile response to Stewart’s return, in which he accused him of brainwashing voters to accept the status quo by laughing at it when they could be out in the streets affecting change. Klepper derided his “90s brand of snark and bothsiderism — George Bush is dumb! Al Gore is so boring! Wow. Searing, Jon.”

Klepper turns out to be all smarm, of course; his hostility melts when he learns he’ll be hosting the rest of the week. It’s not a bad way to defuse the critiques of Stewart’s shtick. It’s also, in my view, a little beneath him.

Jon Stewart didn’t just define political comedy for a generation. He made a particular orientation toward politics (and news) mainstream. In modeling a kind of cool and incisive, civil but skeptical outsiderhood that doesn’t work well with — or think much of — groups, Stewart fostered a community of cool kids who laughed along with him at the absurd political theater coming from those in power, but also — perhaps more damagingly — at any movement at all. (Most versions of civic engagement are, by dint of their cheesy slogans and sincerity, automatically and deeply uncool.) The biggest point the well-attended March to Restore Sanity made was how effectively Stewart had forged a community of skeptics who believed themselves above the humiliating homogeneity that membership in a political group (any political group) implies. Some group identities are acceptable. “Daily Show fans,” for instance, were cool. Democrats, in contrast, were not.

The show offered a way out of the demoralizing trap of belonging to the electorate. Stewart punctured many holes in polished media narratives, took many politicians to task. But he also talked his audience out of subordinating their individual perspectives to the unnuanced battering ram any collective effort to effect change will at some point become.

Stewart’s meatier response to his critics on this front was buried in the monologue — in an admonition that the oxygen and attention the election would inevitably consume should be tempered by sustained civic participation. Nov. 5 matters, Stewart told his viewers, but so does the day after. If the other guy wins, “the country is not over,” he said, and if he doesn’t, “the country is in no way safe.” What followed was an exhortation to eternal civic vigilance and tireless civic work. That doesn’t feel particularly coherent. It certainly wasn’t a repudiation of his contempt for cheerleading initiatives to get out the vote (for instance), which he mocked. But it does feel like a turn away from snark toward something that can brook the cheesy uncoolness that sometimes attends collective effort.

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