Ever since the beginning of the Trump presidency and the explosion of political satire that accompanied it, one question has nagged at me: Whatever happened to Jon Stewart?
As host of the Daily Show for 16 years, Stewart was the godfather of a new generation of late-night TV hosts, who infused their comedy with a pointed, often partisan political viewpoint. But after retiring from the show in 2015, just as the Trump wave was starting to crest, Stewart largely dropped out of sight.
He had a much-touted deal with HBO, for some kind of animated series, which kept getting postponed and then quietly disappeared. He wrote and directed one movie, Irresistible, which had the misfortune to come out in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, and was barely noticed. He popped up occasionally as a guest on former Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert’s CBS show, and became an advocate for survivors of 9/11. But otherwise, for arguably the sharpest political satirist on TV to be missing in action during the entire Trump nightmare just seemed like a waste, not to say a little mysterious.
Now he’s back, finally, with a new series on Apple TV+. And judging by the first three episodes of The Problem With Jon Stewart, I have to say that I’m still asking the same question: Whatever happened to Jon Stewart?
He’s clearly less interested today in comedy than in causes; The Problem With Jon Stewart is an earnest, agenda-driven, mostly serious talk show. Each episode takes on one issue — how veterans are being denied needed health care, say, or how the economy is failing the working class — and explores it with round-table discussions and one-on-one interviews (Stewart grilling Janet Yellen, or Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough), with only a few dollops of Stewart’s wit as seasoning.
The topics are worthy, Stewart’s reformist passion admirable, and the journalism solid. The problem is a clash of formats. On the one hand, the episodes, with their generic titles (“War,” “Freedom,” “The Economy”), have a timeless, pre-packaged feel — what we used to call in the magazine business “evergreens.” The in-studio panels are carefully chosen and balanced (a mix of eggheads, activists, and average Joes) and the discussions obviously edited, to bolster the case Stewart is trying to make. There is little spontaneity or conflict; even the few disagreements seem orchestrated. It’s all very sober and high-minded, like a well-run university symposium.
At the same time, Stewart tries to loosen things up, with backstage scenes of him and his staff batting ideas around a conference table (painful to watch), and Daily Show-style monologue bits, full of Stewart’s sardonic wisecracks, ironic grimaces and deadpan double-takes. But this sort of riffing on the news worked when it was broadcast live on a nightly basis. In a show that comes out, not even once a week but every two weeks (easing back in, Jon?), they seem too showcased and self-conscious — like Robin Williams doing an improv bit on an Andy Williams Christmas special. Even Stewart’s breaks for commercials that aren’t there (“We’ll be right back”) are symptomatic of the confusion of realms.
Too bad. John Oliver and Samantha Bee, two of Stewart’s old Daily Show colleagues, have each managed to find new weekly formats that meld comedy and commentary more successfully. Clearly Stewart doesn’t want to copy the people who started out by copying him, and his new show may eventually find its footing. But for now, it feels oddly superfluous.