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‘Honest, critical, sane’: Jon Stewart’s welcome return to The Daily Show | US television

‘Honest, critical, sane’: Jon Stewart’s welcome return to The Daily Show | US television
‘Honest, critical, sane’: Jon Stewart’s welcome return to The Daily Show | US television

When Comedy Central announced that Jon Stewart would return once a week to the Daily Show desk, left hostless for more than a year since Trevor Noah stepped down and heir apparent Hasan Minhaj became embroiled in fabrication controversies, it seemed to symbolize all the wrong things. A show that was supposed to be charting a path forward had circled back to its own past, unable to offer an option more inspiring than another helping of whatever the public approved of during the Obama years. In the worst-case scenario, the failure of imagination that ushered a 61-year-old Stewart back to the fore of a drastically changed political reality could have been an unfortunate parallel to the DNC, hurtling toward a dead end as they refuse to cultivate young talent in the party and cast their lot with a dug-in gerontocracy.

Oh we (me?) of little faith. The difference between Stewart and every other talking head has historically been an allergy to BS, and, as he settled back into the throne, that included his own. The opening segment tackled its unflattering subtext – a desperate bid to give the people something safe and agreeable – head-on by addressing America’s wider tendency to cling to a hidebound status quo. By taking aim at the mental acuity of the two octogenarians competing for the office of president, Stewart cannily separated himself from them, and came off looking sharp as ever: honest, critical, sane and, most importantly, attuned to the frustrations of his voting viewership. After all this time spent as a fabulously rich person, after his ill-advised movie project Irresistible met a ruthless political moment with weak-tea centrist satire, he’s somehow still got it. Miracle of miracles, Stewart has not lost the ability to be our guy, to act as the collective release valve for anger too studied for standup and too frank for news media.

For better and for worse, the notion of continuity was always going to hang over Stewart’s first night back, which he began with the same old faux-scribbling on his notes and a winking reintroduction of “Now, where was I?” Following a reassuring dose of self-deprecation – “Why am I back? I have committed a lot of crimes and, from what I understand, talkshow hosts are granted immunity,” he deadpanned – he led with some light material on the Super Bowl and Taylor Swift, his focus on the irony that rightwingers opposed to her liberal agenda had to root for San Francisco, or “the People’s Communist Gay Republic of Pelosistan”. This specific brand of rhetorical checkmate, long Stewart’s stock in trade during his Daily Show tenure, has lost its power in the face of a Republican party no longer cowed by the exposure of their own hypocrisies. And as Stewart led off the segment on the candidates’ fitness for office with a montage of Trump not remembering things, his broadsides started to look woefully inadequate against a GOP in many ways mockery-proof.

But savvy remains Stewart’s secret weapon, evident as he pivoted his easy giggles at the expense of doddering oldsters into a sturdier, more salient point about both parties’ demands for lockstep support from their base. More pressing than Biden occasionally drifting off is the Democrat leadership’s insistence that no one remark on it, the consolidation of authority taking precedence over the party’s best interests. On the way to his conclusion that a worthy politician should be able to withstand scrutiny from their side of the aisle, Stewart exercises his latitude to address elephants in the room with bracing, blunt terms. The nine months leading up to the election “are going to suck”, he warns us. “And even if your guy wins, the country is in no way saved.” He alone can verbalize the question on everyone’s minds: “What the fuck are we doing here, people?”

For a presumed block of watchers tuning back in after parting with Stewart in 2015, the middle segment issued a brisk who’s who of the current correspondent rotation set to jointly hold the fort on Tuesday through Thursday. Desi Lydic, Michael Kosta, Dulcé Sloan and Ronny Chieng converged on one of those diners where Real America gathers to give soundbites and, back at the studio, Jordan Klepper reacquainted the folks at home with his Vice-flavored maverick newshound persona. The interview segment also sent a clear message about upheld standards of rigor, the Economist editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, conferring an air of higher-brow intellectualism. It all cohered into an insistent and not unconvincing impression that we’re in good hands, the format and ethic of a show closely identified with gen X unchanged yet far from obsolete for the 2020s.

We’ve got the rest of the year to see whether the ship has truly been righted, but Stewart’s encouraging step-in points to a secure future for a TV institution in jeopardy. He still has a deft control over the harmony at the center of his shtick, the balance between his lacerating sarcasm and the quavering sincerity he bares when he tells us that “the work of making this world resemble one that you’d prefer to live in is a lunchpail fucking job, day in and day out”. Though he may benefit from the residual trust left over from his reign, he’s ready – and, seemingly, able – to earn it all over again.

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