When Stewart took over from ousted bro-caster Craig Kilborn as host of the “Daily Show” in 1999, it was a much needed injection of Gen-X caustic spirit. The host winked with his audience to the post-Cold War absurdity, the Clinton-era imperium, his bow-tied Thunderdome, Gore, and the testimony of the grand jury. But the aftermath of September 11, and in particular the war in Iraq, sharpened Stewart’s irony into outright indignation: the march to Iraq was absurd, yes, but also simply wrong. By the time he stepped down as host in 2015, citing exhaustion and a desire to spend more time with his family, Stewart had transformed from another modestly successful leather-jacket stand-up into a pillar of American liberalism.
Since then, the mainstream left has turned decisively to the ‘outraged’ end of the Stewart-ian spectrum, even among its Gen X colleagues who have seen it all. The ironic, above-the-fray attitude that created Stewart’s initial bond with his audience isn’t just old-fashioned – it’s seen as callous, offensive, or even literally harmful to those on whose behalf he would crusade.
The programs hosted by the vast network of “Daily Show” alumni, including John Oliver, Stephen Colbert (in his ultra-cuddly modern incarnation) and current host Trevor Noah, are far more serious than Stewart is. has never been. If the ironic detachment served as a no-release cultural map that made it cool, or at least acceptable, to care deeply about the current events of the 2000 era, Stewart’s successors see such coverage as entirely unnecessary. His eagerness at the time to confuse left-wing absurdity and extreme political correctness as well as conservative hypocrisy would stand a good chance of having it canceled today. (More likely, it wouldn’t air in the first place.)
Stewart still retains his on-screen charisma, his mastery of current affairs, and his cachet with his former audiences, as his constant presence on his peers’ talk shows suggests. But launching a new agenda in a politico-media ecosystem that has been completely transformed is a deep test for Stewart. It’s also a test of where we are as a culture – whether Stewart is allowed to nod his head in the seriousness of the moment without fully surrendering to it.
The first clue of how Stewart and his team have adjusted is in the format of the show itself, which takes a more polished and understated approach to the news without entirely ruling out its rampant taunts. Now an hour-long weekly schedule, in the first episode we get a behind-the-scenes look at how Stewart and his team of writers and producers structured it: a familiar “Daily Show” style monologue at the top, followed by an interview with the “stakeholders”, as they describe them (people directly affected by the subject of the program), and finally an antagonistic individual interview à la Mike Wallace with an authority figure who ostensibly has the power to help these people.
In an interview with the New York TimesStewart describes the goal of the program as not to advocate, but to “amplify,” in a way reminiscent of the deadly millennial imperative to use one’s “platform” for good. “If you’ve made money in all of this, why not spend it on people better than you who are doing great things? ” he said. “You can help frame their good work. “
The jokes remain, but if “The Daily Show” was subtractive, exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of modern political life, “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is additive, clearly seeking a resolution for those affected by the one. each episode’s problem so far explores. (The revealing first episode doesn’t even mention former President Donald Trump once – as good a sign as any that Stewart is interested in the less chewed currents of American life.)
Stewart himself, with his reflective sarcasm, righteous Howard Beale outbursts and standing, remains largely unchanged – though, as the 58-year-old jokes, he now looks decidedly more like an “anti-smoking poster.” The host implicitly addresses the continuity between his previous and current TV incarnations in the series premiere, titled “War.” That is, America’s various wars in the Middle East, which have caused serious health problems for veterans exposed to open burns in the desert and who have struggled for years with a seemingly indifferent bureaucracy from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Boldly, Stewart proclaims that “the DoD and the VA are forcing them to indisputably prove a connection they already admit internally … to war in the first place,” before moving on to footage from the now infamous George W. Bush’s “smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom” speech. “We went over there to find weapons of mass destruction,” says Stewart looking directly at the camera, “and when they weren’t there, we made our own.”
It’s invigorating stuff, enough to bring one back to the era of flip phones and Tom Cruise hopping onto Oprah’s couch. Even better is an interview with VA secretary Denis McDonough, where Stewart pushes the uncompromising Midwesterner over the torpor of the department to the point where the host feels the need to apologize in an indirect way – to which McDonough, certainly not. A stranger to close combat as the former Obama chief of staff, responds emphatically that “I really don’t care” (about, to be clear, Stewart’s hardball interview style, not the veterans).
Over the past two-plus decades, the Host has cultivated a seriousness that gives him a credibility here that his many potential successors sorely lack. (The interview subjects for the first two episodes are McDonough and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen; it remains to be seen whether any Republicans, who have been burned and downright mocked by Stewart in cases too numerous to count, could voluntarily s ‘register to appear on the program.)
Of course, such gravity can be a double-edged sword for a comedian. Consider the extreme case of Jerry Lewis’ attempt to dramatize the Holocaust, or the brutal imperial domination of Stewart’s liberal compatriot Bill Maher. Nothing so glaring happens here, but the tension between Stewart’s impulses and the show’s new tone is evident: there’s a jarring moment in the debut when he strokes only too quickly between a grim tale of American institutional failure and one of its many jokes, the silent gaze for too long a split second that makes the viewer wonder if the audience has been ordered not to laugh or declined of his own accord.
There’s also an odd feeling that by skirting the hottest political issues of the day in favor of a relatively uncontroversial advocacy for veterans or victims of gun violence, Stewart might hold back some of his more unpopular thoughts. and potentially worthy of cancellation – especially after a high-profile tiff with Colbert and his liberal viewers, after endorsing the coronavirus lab leak theory on Colbert’s agenda. Much of liberal America still embraces Stewart as his conscience, but it is not clear whether he fully embraces the extent to which that conscience has evolved in his absence.
Yet the program largely succeeds in what it sets out to do: Stewart’s candor and energy bring to life interviews that are often lethal or tearful in the hands of others, and his seething populist rage and nose for the audience make him an effective audience. inquisitor for characters like McDonough. At the same time, the show’s relative sobriety and missionary spirit prevent it from sinking into the smug arrogance or triumphalism that critics have accused “The Daily Show” of after its end (and especially after the election of Trump).
As a millennial who reached political age around the same time as Stewart’s show, there is something inherently heartwarming about his return to television. Despite a few awkward moments, the show is entertaining, surprisingly uncompromising, and erased many of the worst impulses of its host – and of its time. But at the same time, his great sincerity may seem suspect not only as an adherence to the modern moral imperative to care much, but as an implicit penance for not having done so openly from the start.
Which may be noble, but it certainly remains to be seen whether it can support an indefinite amount of entertaining television (not to mention that if it’s true, it’s in stark contrast to the truth-telling character of Stewart. , cannot censor me). The most obvious benefit of Stewart’s return to television, at least for now, is in which does not have changed – the extremely rare and reassuring feeling of someone watching the same news as you, feeling the same alarm and saying that you are not the only one who feels deep alienation, sadness or outrage at what is happening.