If you asked any major talk show host in the mid-1990s who their biggest influence was, they’d probably come up with a name: Johnny Carson. A decade later, it was probably David Letterman. Yet today that name is most likely Jon Stewart, whose 16-year run on Comedy Central The daily show took the superficial format of Saturday night live“Weekend Update” and elevated it beyond simple fake news and pop culture references.
Four nights a week, Stewart delivered incisive satirical comments on the very real political issues that impact the world. Four ex Daily program Correspondents now host their own talk shows each bearing Stewart’s mark in some way: Stephen Colbert (The late show), John Oliver (Last week tonight), Samantha Bee (Frontal), and its eventual Daily program successor Trevor Noah. Previous Daily program correspondent Wyatt Cenac hosted Problem areas in 2018Stewart has acknowledged the similarity in the titles.).
That’s a tremendous legacy in and of itself, but it doesn’t end there: Seth Meyers (Late at night) might have hosted Weekend Update for years, but its usual “A Closer Look” segments look more like The daily show Than the old bits of Letterman’s Viewer Mail.
Stewart left The daily show in 2015 at the top of his game. Now, he’s back with a new Apple TV + series, premiering on September 30. The open credit cycle goes through several potential titles (The money grabbed with Jon Stewart, The Monthly Show with Jon Stewart, The problem with Jon Stewart) before deciding on The problem with Jon Stewart, but the cool opening makes it clear that there is no real confusion about the show Stewart wants to create.
Sitting at a table during a producers meeting, Stewart explicitly lays out the format: a monologue introducing this week’s “problem,” then an interview segment dedicated to those directly affected by the problem, followed by an interview with someone important. that could possibly help.
The introduction also reveals the faces of the people who work with Stewart, and is a stark contrast to their conspicuously white male staff upon The daily show, what did he say regretted in an interview last year upon The breakfast club. Stewart has complied with what he described as an obligation to “actively dismantle” a discriminatory system. The show’s lead writer, Chelsea Devantez, is a woman, and the executive producer, Brinda Adhikari, is a woman of color. And she is not alone! This is a refreshing change.
In his last episode in The daily program, Stewart declared that the world was “demonstrably worse than when I started this.” This was not entirely hyperbole or (in my case) Generation X nostalgia speaking. Stewart replaced original host Craig Kilborn in 1999. Bill Clinton was still in office and the Supreme Court had yet to install George W. Bush in the White House. Then came September 11 and the war in Iraq. Donald Trump was not yet president when Stewart resigned, but it was no longer the obvious punchline that Stewart had taken on when he came down the escalators. in June 2015.
Stewart told Charlie Rose in 1997 that the key to his comedy was to recognize the absurdities of life. But the Trump era, possibly still ongoing, was not simply absurd. It was devastatingly real. Stewart admirably does not attempt to return to a simpler medium. He seems focused on making the change he wants to see in the world.
That said, the first “problem” Stewart addresses is familiar ground: the country’s poor treatment of its military veterans. Stewart has advocated on behalf of the 9/11 first responders, who suffered the long-term effects of a terrorist attack, but these Iraqi war veterans are victims of a not-so-friendly fire. They were exposed to toxic fumes from what are known as “combustion pits,” where US military contractors dumped trash and set it on fire with jet fuel. “Trash” is too benign a word. The pits contained piles of human feces and random body parts. There are still veterans dying of cancer, but the government would also rather bury them, claiming there is no proven link between otherwise healthy young men now struggling to breathe or have attempted suicide due to their chronic pain.
This isn’t funny stuff, obviously, but Stewart is too personally involved to land the few jokes from the first segment. Here, the show falls short of the standard set by John Oliver’s deep dives into a topic that is informative but never short of fun. Amber Ruffin can also offer “Schoolhouse Rock” -style studies on racism that still make you laugh. Stewart struggles with this balance to the extent that he really tries (the few overt efforts fail).
The problem with Jon Stewart it’s ultimately more advocacy than activism, and while that’s consistent with Stewart’s earlier work, it lacks punch. Our current political climate is so absurd that even real news anchors, like MSNBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, frequently have satirical segments in which they act more like Stewart than the Walter Cronkite jerks parodied in “Weekend Update” and the original Daily program with Craig Kilborn. They exist in a post-Stewart reality. The challenge for Stewart is whether he can truly thrive in the world he has created.
- Interview segments were never my favorite part of Stewart Daily program. This episode’s interview with Denis R. McDonough is awkward and, unfortunately, McDonough, who seems well-intentioned, appears as Martin Short’s shady businessman in a 60 minutes parody of Saturday night live. That was funny, of course. This is not.
- It seems even more impressive now that John Oliver can keep my attention on a single topic for 30 minutes.
- I know it seems like a strange review given The daily show format, but Stewart could really use someone to joke with on the show.