In Self-Deprecating Return to ‘The Daily Show’, Jon Stewart Beats His Critics to the Punch: TV Review

The parallels were impossible to ignore, so Jon Stewart decided not to ignore them. Both major American political parties have been unable to find new candidates to lead their presidential tickets, leading to a rematch in the 2024 election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And in a much lower-stakes effort to find a leader for a legacy institution, Comedy Central has yet to decide on a new course for “The Daily Show” following the departure of Trevor Noah, despite months of public tryouts from guest hosts including Sarah Silverman, Roy Wood Jr., Desus Nice and more. So the network has brought back Stewart for a weekly appearance on Monday nights, starting with this week’s season premiere.

These similarities are lost on no one, least of all Stewart himself. Apart from an extended runtime and a quick appearance by former correspondent Jordan Klepper, there was little to announce tonight’s episode as a major event or break from routine. From the monologue to the staged “field” segment to the interview to the Moment of Zen, the run of show proceeded as usual — or rather, as it usually did until 2015, the last time Stewart occupied the chair. The primary feeling was not of triumphant return or even nostalgia, but déjà vu. For long stretches, it was as if Stewart had never made an abortive attempt at an animated news show for HBO, nor made an Emmy-nominated series for Apple TV+ until the tech company flinched at potential controversy. You could almost believe Stewart had stayed fixed in the seat where he still clearly feels comfortable, cuing up montages of news clips and grimacing at political gaffes.

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Until, that is, Stewart used himself as an example. For nearly 20 minutes, the comedian expounded on the absurdity of a rematch between two men who had already been the oldest presidential candidates in American history. Then he turned to the camera. “Look at me,” he urged. “Look what time hath wrought.” Despite being decades younger than either Trump or Biden, Stewart could still recognize the obvious joke: politicians aren’t the only ones who have problems passing the torch.

Stewart also outsourced some of his self-deprecation. “This is the same shit all over again!” cried correspondent Dulcé Sloan. “We need something besides the same show with an older, yet familiar face.” (Dutifully playing along, Stewart asked: “We’re talking about the election, right?”) Klepper stopped by the studio to challenge his former boss’s “brand of snark and both-sidesism,” channeling some of the more substantive critiques of Stewart that emerged during his absence. The Apple show occasionally went viral for confrontational interviews, but where Bush-era Stewart was a soothing source of exasperated sanity, political comedy during the Trump years could feel like a futile shaking of a fist in the face of a cultural tsunami.

Jokes at Stewart’s expense helped to dispel the initial awkwardness, but they don’t resolve the fundamental tension underlying everything from the election to Bob Iger’s second stint at Disney to Stewart’s own full-circle moment. We’re at a crossroads where systems are stuck in a loop, running their own expired playbooks to increasingly diminished returns. “The Daily Show” itself runs on a network with increasingly little original programming, owned by a conglomerate frantically searching for a new owner as its value grows progressively smaller. Bringing Stewart back is a momentary bright spot, but there’s still another three days a week of episodes to fill. What are those going to look like, and for how long until a longer-term solution comes along — if it ever does?

Anyone who has living memories of the War on Terror is powerless to resist Stewart’s particular blend of cynicism and moral righteousness. Yet the lack of pomp and circumstance around his return means that its meta aspects become the most meaningful. Stewart could mock Biden’s fraying faculties or point out Trump’s infinite shortcomings in his sleep. It’s not the punchlines themselves that help demonstrate the snake-eating-its-tail absurdity of the current news cycle. It’s the man delivering them, and how many times we’ve seen him before.

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