This week, Jon Stewart took part in a new late-night tradition: the streaming comeback. Like David Letterman before him, and like Conan O’Brien plans to do after them, the former “Daily Show” host — who remade the political comedy landscape and ended an iconic run on the Comedy Central series in 2015 — returned to TV on Thursday with Apple TV Plus’s “The Problem With Jon Stewart.”
It’s been hard to miss him. Though Stewart has largely stayed out of the limelight during his six-year hiatus, he left a lingering bad taste in the mouth when he signed off “The Daily Show” by calling then-candidate Donald Trump a “gift from heaven” to comedians. (To be fair, he was far from the only American who had trouble seeing Trump’s appeal to millions of our fellow citizens.) “Irresistible,” Stewart’s 2020 political satire film starring “Daily Show” alum Steve Carell, opened to pans from critics and a dismal box office. He then made headlines this June for an apparently failed joke on “The Late Night With Stephen Colbert” — another “Daily Show” star — about whether the pandemic was “more than likely caused by science.”
But Stewart has been hardest to miss because his success has made him obsolete. On his Netflix talk show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” Letterman uses his hour-long run time for in-depth interviews with famous people, sometimes yielding the kind of honest discussions he could only get as a fellow famous person. O’Brien, who spent three decades retooling his shows to figure out what worked and what didn’t, decided only making more travelogues for his HBO Max show, to debut next year, would make him happiest. (“Jay Leno’s Garage” currently airs on CNBC, but it began as a web series, and it, too, is a passion project for the former “Tonight Show” host.)
As the most influential late-night figure of the past decade and a half, Stewart faces a unique challenge: the countless imitators and former proteges who do exactly what he did, often with more refreshing perspectives (as with Amber Ruffin, the duo of Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, or Stewart’s “Daily Show” successor Trevor Noah). The format Stewart popularized has now reached its undisputed apotheosis with John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” while the infotainment and political commentary ecospheres have expanded beyond television to YouTube and social media. Turns out, anyone can point out hypocrisy.
So what’s Stewart left with? With even his signature phrase “fake news” (the term he used to describe his irreverent takes on the day’s events) appropriated from him, the comedian is opting for what might be called “slow news”: a 40- to 60-minute biweekly show dedicated to a single topic. If “Last Week Tonight” is a newsmagazine, with a main “cover story” and a variety of smaller segments dedicated to shorter “columns” and “articles,” “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is closer to a book. Sound snoozy? You got the right idea.
In the media run-up to the show’s release, Stewart has described “The Problem With” half-jokingly as “‘The Daily Show,’ but less entertaining.” That still oversells its humor; I didn’t laugh once during the two 45-minute episodes screened for review.
The first installment is especially somber, focusing on a worthy but largely ignored cause that Stewart has dedicated himself to for some time: veterans denied health care after exposure to carcinogenic toxins from Iraqi burn pits left them with sustained or terminal illnesses. “We went there to find weapons of mass destruction, and when they weren’t there, we made our own,” says Stewart, channeling the righteous anger that made “The Daily Show” appointment viewing for many progressives (including me for at least a decade) — but not exactly tickling the studio audience’s funny bone. Recalling the host’s longtime advocacy for health care for 9/11 first responders, the episode gathers several ailing veterans to share their hardships and their feelings of neglect by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In a fame landscape that’s utterly transformed since Stewart began his career, he wants to use his celebrity the old-fashioned way: to shine the spotlight on people and stories that might not get it otherwise. It’s a noble ambition, but one that surely Stewart must realize precious few viewers will stick around for without some jokes to leaven the proceedings.
The second episode, titled “Freedom,” better represents his gifts at locating the absurdity in today’s dispiriting political theater and never-ending culture wars. He rants at length about the illogic of refusing to wear masks under the banner of liberty — a broadside that might have induced the intended catharsis had it been delivered a year and a half ago.
Stewart never really clarifies what the “freedom” he expounds on at length about means — personal autonomy, the threatened rights of asylum seekers, and the global fight against authoritarianism get dumped into the same basket, resulting in a thematically muddled episode. The panel he assembles comprises Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, Venezuelan activist Francisco Marquez and Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, the last one over Zoom, as she’s been banned from leaving her country. Any one of them would’ve made for a fascinating interview on their own, which makes the group-interview format feel superficial and overly generalizing of three very different countries with disparate histories and cultures.
“You think I have you guys on here because I wanna know what your lives are like?” Stewart jokes at one point. “I wanna know what’s gonna happen to us!” It’s not at all a serious remark, yet it’s a reflection of Stewart’s regular-guy populism — or, to be unkinder, provincialism. (He also doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the environmental threats the burn pits pose to Iraqis, who have to live with them in their country.)
A big chunk of the left-leaning audience, I think, still grok with his Jersey-centric worldview, his reflexive self-deprecation and his sneering sarcasm. After being such a longtime fan, I’m just thankful to Stewart that we’ve got so many other alternatives to him now.
The Problem With Jon Stewart airs Thursdays on Apple TV Plus. Episodes stream every other week.