Jon Stewart Knows “The Daily Show” Can’t Save Democracy

When Jon Stewart announced that he would return to “The Daily Show” as a part-time host, the reaction among fans was split. The nostalgists were vindicated on Monday night: there was no trace of rust in his twenty-minute opening monologue, during which he addressed the age and apparent infirmity of Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The jokes could’ve been written entirely by Stewart, whose comedic voice—reasonable, conversational, a little sophomoric—was remarkably unchanged despite nine years away. After riffing on the special counsel’s report that damned Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” Stewart argued in favor of intellectual honesty over knee-jerk partisanship: “It is not crazy to think that the oldest people in the history of the country to ever run for President might have some of these challenges . . . What’s crazy is thinking that we’re the ones, as voters, who must silence concerns and criticisms.” He cautioned against nihilistic indifference and false equivalencies—and, notably, did not bother to reassure the audience. “If your guy loses, bad things might happen, but the country is not over,” he said. “And if your guy wins, the country is in no way saved.”

I’ll admit that, on hearing the news of Stewart’s reappearance, I was among the skeptics; I’ve long thought that, with his accomplishments on “The Daily Show,” he had transformed late night so completely that he’d made himself redundant. But he won me over by the end of his fifty-minute “première” by acknowledging the unrealistic hopes pinned on his homecoming, as well as the critiques he’s received from the left. The host dropped all pretense of irony when he admitted he’d previously been “glib at best” and “probably dismissive at worst” about the slog required to enact positive change. The correspondent Jordan Klepper, who will host the week’s remaining episodes, tauntingly asked Stewart, “Did you save democracy yet with your nineties brand of snark and both-sider-isms?” Another correspondent, Dulcé Sloan, drew the obvious parallel between the candidates’ recurrence and Stewart’s own: “We need more than just the same show with an older yet familiar face.” That’s true, and yet, by hinting at how he’s rethought some of his stances, Stewart has made us curious once again about what he has to say.

In the near-decade since he gave up his hosting chair, Stewart’s influence has only grown, even as his reputation lost some of its lustre. That he’s struggled to find (or create) a post-“Daily Show” vehicle for himself is no secret. Critics noted the lack of satirical bite in the 2020 election comedy “Irresistible,” which he wrote and directed. His subsequent return to current affairs, the gravely serious Apple TV+ series “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” was cancelled after two seasons—a casualty of poor ratings and, reportedly, of “creative differences” with Apple over his plans to discuss A.I. and China. (Last night, when laying out his vision for the new “Daily Show,” he wryly alluded to the possibility of talking about both.) After sitting out most of the Trump years—an era when politics got nastier and crazier at hurricane speeds—Stewart has come back to a democracy in tatters and the very real possibility of another Trump victory in November. He’s never been tested like this before.

Still, his fans could be forgiven for considering him their best chance at making sense of it all. After taking over “The Daily Show” from Craig Kilborn, in 1999, Stewart turned the series into essential viewing for a certain slice of the electorate, including myself. (I got hooked as a college student during the George W. Bush Administration; from that point until Stewart’s departure, in 2015, I never missed an episode.) As a comedian, Stewart was able to be two things his journalistic counterparts weren’t: partisan and emotional. In a post-9/11 media environment that stifled dissenting voices—and at a time when many Americans were dismayed by the injustices committed in their name—Stewart reacted to the news the way a normal person might, freely expressing anger, exasperation, and disbelief. Because he wasn’t pretending to be above or unaffected by the events of the day, processing them alongside him felt more bearable. “The Daily Show” came to feel like a nightly check-in with your smartest friend.

The series didn’t depend on access to politicians, so Stewart could be more forceful in calling out their hypocrisies than the mainstream media, which became a target of his ire in its own right. The infamous 2004 face-off in which he dressed down Tucker Carlson on his own show, the CNN debate program “Crossfire,” for “hurting America” by engaging in “theatre” instead of genuine dialogue, both cemented Stewart’s fame and displayed the potency of his critiques. “Crossfire” was cancelled, and Carlson eventually landed at Fox News, another “Daily Show” bête noire. In the decades since, Fox’s popularity—and detachment from reality—has only increased. The fates of the on-air personalities Stewart once mocked are revealing. Glenn Beck, whom he regularly satirized in the early Obama years, has disappeared from traditional news altogether; so has Bill O’Reilly, whose daily pontifications Stewart and Stephen Colbert parodied via “The Colbert Report.” Carlson’s radicalization outpaced that of Fox itself, which he has since left under a cloud; last week, he flew to Moscow to conduct a softball interview with Vladimir Putin. Garnering high ratings on the network’s current lineup, though, is Greg Gutfeld’s late-night comedy talk show “Gutfeld!”—Fox’s own “Daily Show.”

Stewart’s greatest legacy may be that late night as a whole has come to feel like Resistance TV. Nightly updates on the political crisis du jour can be found not only on a relatively niche network like Comedy Central but on broadcasters like CBS, ABC, and NBC, from hosts Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers, respectively. Kimmel, once an anodyne bro, now cheerfully torments the far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and keeps tabs on the antics of the Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Meanwhile, studiously apolitical talk shows once helmed by the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman feel on the verge of extinction. Jimmy Fallon’s decade-old “Tonight Show” may be the last gasp of that era. When Taylor Tomlinson, the ultra-popular millennial comic, got her own insomniacs’ program, “After Midnight,” on CBS last month, she opted out of the topical-takes-and-celebrity-interview format entirely, preferring, instead, to preside over a game show.

Stewart returns to “The Daily Show” after many of its alumni—Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj, Michelle Wolf, Larry Wilmore, and Jordan Klepper—landed “late-night” series of their own, nearly all of them spiritual spinoffs. Only two have avoided cancellation. Though Colbert in particular remains close to Stewart, perhaps his truest successor on the airwaves today is Seth Meyers, another silver-haired, casual-dad type from the Northeast who scans as both “news junkie” and “fundamentally good dude.” Meyers pivoted hard during Trump’s first bid for the Presidency, deliberately setting out to fill the void left by Stewart. He’s proved adept at offering the same kind of tether to sanity, reminding viewers that huge swaths of the country remain “normal,” even if Republicans have become more extreme. But in general, political humor is moving on from its reliance on a white male Everyman. As marginalized groups contend with renewed hostility from the right, we’ve come to value late night as a venue for insight into the personal impact of policy changes and culture wars—another shift that Stewart’s “Daily Show” recognized early, increasing the diversity of its correspondents by tapping such talents as Trevor Noah and Hasan Minhaj. Noah’s most memorable segments as host were informed by his experiences as a South African outsider; Minhaj broke out in part by discussing Trump’s Muslim Ban through the lens of his own fears about being separated from his family. Both pushed the genre forward—though neither was quite the heir “The Daily Show” needed them to be. (Minhaj was reportedly the network’s choice to take over until a piece in this magazine revealed that he had fabricated anecdotes about discrimination for his standup specials. In a response video, Minhaj defended himself by asserting that “comedic storytelling” can have a looser relationship with the truth.)

Stewart intends to host “The Daily Show” through Election Day. In order to succeed, whoever comes after him will need to avoid the excesses of the format that he popularized: so-called clapter comedy, a phrase that has been credited to Meyers which describes the kind of jokes that, instead of making audiences laugh, elicit applause by pandering to their preëxisting beliefs. Stewart resorted to such lines at least occasionally during his tenure; in the Trump era, the tactic exploded. The use of clapter as a crutch, and a general ethos against “punching down” among moral-minded standups, has rendered much of today’s political comedy predictable.

One welcome respite from this trend is the “Saturday Night Live” segment “Weekend Update,” whose hosts, Colin Jost and Michael Che, may well represent the future of the form. Rather than ape generic news anchors, as their predecessors did, Jost and Che play up their individual comic personae as the Harvard grad with “a very punchable face” and the thin-skinned Black edgelord. Their iteration of “Weekend Update” is bracing in part because it’s never obvious in which direction the punches will fly: The duo might say what we’re all thinking about Trump, or gratuitously troll the audience, or even turn on each other. Rather than fretting over whether they’re saying the “right” things, Jost and Che give themselves the freedom to tell the funniest jokes, regardless of their relationship to the comedians’ actual convictions.

That likely won’t fly for a “Daily Show” host. The program remains Comedy Central’s most storied institution, and Stewart, in his heyday, was considered by many to be a more reliable news source than actual journalists; that bond of trust with viewers is one of his less appreciated innovations. Minhaj’s apparently aborted deal suggests that, from the perspective of the network, trustworthiness, or at least the perception thereof, is still a non-negotiable requirement for the job. Stewart himself is one of the few who’s managed to serve as both jester and oracle: a figure who can channel the truth and entertain us while doing it. His next challenge is to make his voice indispensable until November—and to set the stage for what follows. He ended last night’s monologue with a paean to activists that also revealed his own motives for returning. Even after you “grind away on issues” to effect change, he said, there’s still a duty “to stay on to make sure that result holds.” ♦

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