When Stewart succeeded the fallen bro-caster Craig Kilborn as the presenter of the Daily Show in 1999, it was a much-needed injection of sharp Gen X joke. The host winked with his audience at the absurdity of the post-Cold War Clinton-era empire, its fly-linked Thunderdome by Gingrich, Gore and Grand jury statement. But the aftermath of September 11th, and especially the Iraq war, sharpened Stewart’s irony into real indignation: The step into Iraq was absurd, yes, but also fair not correct. By the time he resigned as a host in 2015 out of exhaustion and a desire to spend more time with his family than to host, Stewart had grown from another humble, successful leather jacket stand-up to a pillar of American liberalism.
Since then, the mainstream left has shifted decisively toward the “outrage” end of the Stewart spectrum, even among his Gen X contemporaries. The ironic, non-combatant stance that established Stewart’s initial bond with his audience is not just out of fashion – it is considered insensitive, offensive, or even literally harmful to those on whose names he would crusade.
The Daily Show’s extensive network of alumni, including John Oliver, Stephen Colbert (in his fluffy modern incarnation) and current host Trevor Noah, are far more serious than Stewart ever was. If ironic distancing served as a cultural release card that made it cool, or at least acceptable, to dig deeply into current affairs in the Y2K era, Stewart’s successors feel such camouflage is completely unnecessary. His zeal at the time to impale left absurdity and extreme political correctness as well as conservative hypocrisy would have a pretty good chance of being canceled today. (It probably wouldn’t air in the first place.)
Stewart still retains his on-screen charisma, mastery of current events, and the stamp of approval with his old audience, as his constant presence on his peers’ talk shows suggests. But introducing a new program into a completely changed political media ecosystem is a thorough consideration for Stewart. It’s also a test of where we stand as a culture – whether Stewart can nod to the seriousness of the moment without completely surrendering to it.
The first clue as to how Stewart and his team have adapted is in the format of the show itself, which approaches the news in a more polished and sober way without completely discarding its endemic sayings. Now, a one-hour weekly program, in the first episode we get a glimpse behind the scenes of how Stewart and his team of authors and producers built it: A well-known monologue in the style of the “Daily Show” was followed by an interview with “Stakeholders” how they describe them (people directly affected by the content of the show) and finally, a Mike Wallace-style antagonistic one-on-one interview with a figure in authority who supposedly has the power to help those people.
In one (n Interview with the New York Times, Stewart describes the program’s focus not as advocacy, but as “reinforcement,” in a manner reminiscent of the deadly millennial imperative to use one’s “platform” forever. “If you’ve made some capital with all of this, why not spend it on people better than you who do remarkable things?” He said. “You can help to shape your good work.”
The jokes remain, but if “The Daily Show” was subtractive and railed against the hypocrisy and absurdity of modern political life, “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is additive and clearly seeks a solution for those who have so far been in on the individual issue every episode affected were researched. (Significantly, the first episode doesn’t even mention former President Donald Trump – a good sign like any other that Stewart is interested in less chewed currents in American life.)
Stewart himself, with his knee-jerk sarcasm, Howard Beale-like bouts of genuine outrage, and stand-up hamminess remains largely unchanged – even if, as the 58-year-old jokes, it now looks a lot more like an “anti-smoking poster”. In the series premiere entitled “War”, the presenter implicitly addresses the continuity between his previous and current TV incarnations. That is, America’s various wars in the Middle East that caused severe health consequences for veterans open fire pits in the desert that were now has been fighting for years with a seemingly indifferent bureaucracy from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Stewart, working on a steamer, announces, “The DoD and VA are forcing them to indisputably prove a connection that they already internally admit exists … to go to war” before viewing recordings of George W. Bush’s Threw the now infamous speech “Smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud”. “We went there to find weapons of mass destruction,” says Stewart, staring straight at the camera, “and when they weren’t there we made our own.”
It’s invigorating stuff, enough to throw you back in the clamshell era and Tom Cruise jumps on Oprah’s couch. Even better is an interview with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, in which Stewart pushes the steely Midwest so far into the numbness of the department that the host feels the need to apologize wryly – for which McDonough, certainly no stranger to hand-to-hand combat as Obamas Former boss, is of the staff, boldly replies “I don’t give a shit” (about, to be clear, Stewart’s hardball interview style, not the veterans).
Over the past two decades, the host has developed a Gravitas that gives him a credibility that his many would-be successors sorely lack. (Interviewees for the first two episodes are McDonough and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen; it remains to be seen whether Republicans, who have been burned and downright ridiculed by Stewart in too many cases, will willingly show up to appear on the program.)
Of course, such gravitas can be a double-edged sword for a comedian. Consider the extreme case of Jerry Lewis’ attempt to dramatize the holocaust, or the hectic, imperial asshole rule of Stewart’s liberal compatriot Bill Maher. Nothing so flashy happens here, but the tension between Stewart’s impulses and the show’s new tone is evident: there’s a harrowing moment in the debut when it circles only Too quickly between a somber narrative of American institutional failure and one of its numerous jokes, to stare in silence for too long, forcing the viewer to wonder whether the audience has been told not to laugh or of their own accord to refuse.
There’s also an eerie feeling that by dodging the hottest political topics of the day in favor of a relatively undisputed advocacy for veterans or victims of gun violence, Stewart could withhold some of his less popular, potentially negative thoughts – especially after a top-class Tiff with Colbert and his liberal viewers after advocating coronavirus laboratory leak theory in Colbert’s program. Much of liberal America still takes Stewart as his conscience, but it is not clear whether he accepts the extent to which that conscience developed in his absence.
Still, the program largely succeeds in what it intended: Stewart’s openness and energy invigorate interviews that are often deadly boring or sentimental in the hands of others, and his seething populist anger and grasp of the audience make him an effective audience inquisitor for characters like McDonough. At the same time, the show’s relative sobriety and missionary focus prevents it from falling into the smug self-righteousness or triumphalism that critics accused of “The Daily Show” after its end (and especially after Trump’s election).
As a millennial who was of political age at the same time as Stewart’s show, there is something comforting about his return to television. Despite a few awkward moments, the show is entertaining, surprisingly persistent, and has scrubbed off many of the worst impulses from its host – and his era. But at the same time, his seriousness can feel suspicious, as if he is not just complying with the modern moral imperative care very much, but an implicit penance for not doing it openly all along.
Which may be classy, but it certainly remains to be seen if this can sustain an unlimited amount of entertaining television viewing (not to mention, if it’s true, blatantly in contrast to Stewart’s most truthful persona, can’t censor me). The most obvious benefit to Stewart’s return to television, for now at least, is what has not altered – the vanishingly rare, elemental comforting feeling that someone is watching the same news as you, feeling the same concern, and saying that you are not alone with a deep alienation or sadness or outrage about what is going on.