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Critic’s Notebook: Jon Stewart Returned to ‘The Daily Show’ Like No Time Had Passed. Is That a Good Thing?

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After The Daily Show went more than 12 months without being able to find a host to replace Trevor Noah in time to cover a presidential election in which neither major party has been able to find candidates to replace Joe Biden or Donald Trump, the Comedy Central series kicked off a run of fresh episodes with an interim, part-time new host… Jon Stewart.

Whether you find Stewart’s return to be an act of triumph or a sign of desperation — he’ll be doing Monday night shows until November’s election — the venerable performer slid back into the hosting chair like no time had passed since his August 2015 departure.

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This didn’t feel like Jon Stewart doing a Jon Stewart impression, exactly. But it definitely felt like Jon Stewart doing a Jon-Stewart-as-host-of-The-Daily-Show impression — a difference without a distinction unless you watched Stewart’s short-lived Apple TV+ show or caught any of his various talk show appearances in the intervening years.

There was the Jon Stewart who tried to indicate that he was an evolving figure as he struggled to find the right voice to carry the revised format on The Problem With Jon Stewart — that was, in fact, the problem with The Problem With Jon Stewart — and the Jon Stewart who periodically dropped in to chat with friends like Stephen Colbert. That Jon Stewart was differently and more pointedly angry in some cases, and more relaxed and easygoing in others. But he didn’t come equipped with the weight and expectation of his Daily Show chair and suit and red tie. Perhaps because he never settled into one single Jon Stewart identity in the last eight-plus years, there was no wild deviation or regression to be seen.

He just sat down in the chair and did his thing.

“Why am I back, you may be asking yourselves. It’s a very reasonable question. I have committed a lot of crimes. From what I understand, talk show hosts are granted immunity. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but take it up with the founders,” he observed.

He scribbled on his notes as the audience roared. He shouted at the camera in mock exasperation. He dipped into his bag of familiar voices, including touches of Borscht Belt Jewish impersonation and obligatory nods to Jerry Lewis. If there was anything that distinguished the 20-minute opening of the show from what Trevor Noah would have done, it was those grace notes.

As for the actual text of the monologue, it wasn’t appreciably different from a Noah monologue. One of my least favorite comment section narratives after Noah announced his exit was that Noah was a liberal ideologue who lost viewers accustomed to Stewart’s more even-handed approach. This is ridiculous, of course. You can prefer Stewart’s general mien to Noah’s, prefer his punchlines and cadences, welcome the return of Stewart’s greater comic intensity to Noah’s deceptively sing-song joviality. That’s a preference, and that’s what loving comedy is all about. But on the political spectrum, they weren’t wildly different.

Stewart’s first Daily Show monologue was, fittingly and a little lamely, about the fact that we have two very old candidates for the presidency and that you can’t lambaste Biden’s blunders and incoherence without acknowledging Trump’s blunders and incoherence and vice versa. While he was able to use Friday’s special counsel report on Biden’s mishandling of documents as a hook, it was the sort of “How did we get here?” rant of incredulity that comics have been doing for months (or years). And, in its specifics, it was the same rant of incredulity made by countless amateur and professional pundits all weekend long on Formerly Twitter and Bluesky and I’m assuming on Threads and Hive and Post and Mastodon and Flurffle.

This is a problem that plagued Noah’s Daily Show as well, of course. For all the ostensible youthfulness of Noah and his staff’s approach, he constantly seemed like he was chasing the same punchlines that had gone viral several hours earlier, as opposed to being the source for the viral punchlines as Stewart once was in a slower-moving social media era. It’s possible that Stewart may have made a mistake in opting for Monday as his once-a-week telecast; although Monday’s show sets the tone for the week, it has the flaw of following up on several days of news that has already been hashed and rehashed. This will only get worse when Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is back, airing the night before Stewart.

But not everybody is on social media all the time and not everybody watches Oliver or other late-night shows. So if you haven’t had the chance to compare Biden’s forgetfulness to a montage of various Trumps listing the things they don’t remember in depositions, this was all new to you.

And even if it wasn’t new, it was comforting. Should a man once deemed the most crucial voice in late night and an indispensable figure on comic news be settling for “comforting”? Shrug.

There were some bits with a little bite, to be sure.

Stewart derided Biden for calling Israel’s actions in Gaza “over-the-top” with, “I like how Biden describes Israel’s incessant bombing of civilians the same way my mother talks about the Super Bowl Halftime Show. ‘Eh. It was a little much. Did they need to be on roller-skates?’”

And there was well-placed anger, like his response to Kari Lake insisting Trump wasn’t an old man with, “He’s an old man. He’s objectively an old man! On a human scale. Trump is objectively old. If he was a tortoise, I would tell him, as a tortoise at 77, ‘Oh, young man, go off and enjoy college.’ But he’s not a tortoise. He’s not a tortoise.”

Stewart showed awareness of his own precarious position in commenting on a situation he wanted to insist was “human-lifespan-ist” and not “ageist.” At 61, Stewart urged the camera in close and announced, “Look at me. Look what time hath wrought.”

One thing that didn’t get addressed in his showing a picture of himself 20 years younger was that the discussion of Trump and Biden hasn’t really been that they look old. Essentially saying “Look, I’m not necessarily one to talk because my hair is whiter than it used to be” isn’t the same as “Is my voice as sharp as it was 20 years ago?” which Stewart had no interest in addressing. And maybe he doesn’t need to. Main characters aside, this was basically indistinguishable from the kind of monologue Stewart would have given back in Obama times. But Obama times were kinder and gentler, and this might be bringing a knife to a gunfight — even if the knife in question is justifiably beloved.

The host and the writers actually saved the sharpest Stewart-directed barbs for the series’ deep reservoir of correspondents in the episode’s second segment. Stewart introduced lapsed Daily Show audiences to “the best f***ing news team going,” including Desi Lydic and Michael Kosta interviewing Democratic and Republican voters from opposite sides of the same diner, before kicking to Dulcé Sloan in the parking lot lamenting that this entire election is just a “reboot.”

“I mean, they already had this job. Now these old white dudes gotta come back to reclaim it,” she said. “Like… Let someone else run the show,” she said as Stewart played like he was making a complex connection.

Not bad. And in the studio, Jordan Klepper showed up to inquire, “Did you save democracy yet, with your ’90s brand of snark and both-siderism?” Small ouch!

Klepper was placated with the promise that he’ll be hosting the show for the rest of the week and eagerly pronounced his desire to “change the world” with Stewart.

Stewart closed his return with a decently substantive, if predictable, interview with Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist, leading the conversation by returning to the topic of Biden’s age and Trump’s threat to civilization, complete with more insinuations about Stewart’s age as well. The chat worked best if you consider The Economist to be a moderate voice-of-reason publication. I’ll… leave that to each viewer to decide.

Look, Monday’s The Daily Show absolutely answered the question, “What would you expect a Jon Stewart version of The Daily Show to look like in 2024?” It looked and felt familiar and it looked and felt right for that vaguely backward-looking aspiration. It wasn’t exciting, but I’ll be happy enough to keep watching this version of the show, with the acknowledgment that after regaining his footing this swiftly, Stewart may be ready to push his own comfortable limits next week or next month. Or he may not.

The show’s producers had 12 months to find a new host who might be innovative and exciting, who might move the show forward. This isn’t that. But initially, at least, it’s an entertaining enough holding pattern.

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