Jon Stewart’s first episode as host of The Daily Show since 2015 included a segment that placed the show’s correspondents at the quintessential election-season venue for out-of-town reporters looking to connect with the common man: a Michigan diner. But one correspondent, Dulcé Sloan, stood outside the restaurant to deliver harsh commentary. “We need more than just the same show with an older yet familiar face,” she complained. “They already had this job… Now these old white dudes gotta come back and reclaim it?” In conclusion: “Let someone else run the show.”
Sloan was referring to the two men, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, whose unprecedentedly geriatric race for a second term as President was the episode’s nominal topic. The joke was that her diatribe applied just as much to the episode’s true central theme: Stewart’s return to the Daily Show desk. A master of self-deprecation, he gamely feigned offense, in an exchange that captured the essence of the extra-long episode. Stewart, who has presumably internalized the rhythms of the show to the extent that he could host it from the early stages of sleep, performed perfectly. Less consistent was the material, which could feel a bit stale despite the clever quips and self-aware asides.
After a standing ovation from the studio audience and a few cracks about his homecoming (“Why am I back, you may be asking yourselves… I have committed a lot of crimes”), Stewart launched into a 20-minute monologue bemoaning our limited options in the 2024 election. Riffing on last week’s special counsel report that alleged major memory lapses on Biden’s part, Stewart led a whirlwind tour through clips of the President’s many gaffes, including a recent press conference in which a flustered POTUS wandered off the podium, then returned to give an alarmingly garbled response to a question about the Israel-Hamas war: “I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza—in the Gaza strip—has been over-the-top.” Stewart pantomimed a befuddled Biden shuffling papers while confusing the word Gaza with garbanzo, then delivered a withering observation: “I like how Biden describes Israel’s incessant bombing of civilians the same way my mother talks about the Super Bowl Halftime Show.”
It was the edgiest and most effective joke of the night, largely because it captured the Biden administration’s apparent indifference to the suffering of Palestinians, but also because Stewart dared to take a stance on an issue that might actually divide The Daily Show’s liberal audience. And it threw into stark relief the weaknesses of so much material on Biden, Trump, and the ravages of old age (though I can’t argue with the stroke of genius that is titling this year’s election coverage “Indecision 2024: Antiques Roadshow”). Few viewers are likely to disagree with Stewart’s assessment—one familiar from his tenure during the George W. Bush era—that the Democratic candidate is worrisome but the Republican is worse. (He did have a good one-liner following a montage of not just Trump, but also three of his kids playing dumb under oath: “The leading cause of early-onset dementia is being deposed.”) It is, in fact, a common take among the same breed of center-left cable news pundits and newspaper opinion columnists Stewart has so famously mocked.
That’s not to say it wasn’t exhilarating to see him at the show’s helm again. Despite my misgivings about his return, which says nothing good about the health of the late-night talk show as a format, I can admit that no successor has come close to matching his eloquence or energy—not Trevor Noah, not the dozens of talented comedians who guest-hosted The Daily Show last year. Stewart wasn’t always the best interviewer, but he’s retained the estimable skills he gained over the course of his original run, as he demonstrated in an animated, well-informed conversation on Biden, Ukraine, and more with his first guest, The Economist Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes.
No one but Stewart can so seamlessly execute his signature pivot from world-weary humor to earnest commentary, as he did in Monday’s monologue. Following a lengthy bit in which he pointed out that Biden and Trump are both nearly two decades older than Stewart, then drove home the difference 20 years can make by flashing a youthful still of himself on The Daily Show in the early aughts (“perhaps it was my mistake for sleeping in a meat dehydrator”), the host got serious: “The stakes of this election don’t make Donald Trump’s opponent less subject to scrutiny. It actually makes him more subject to scrutiny.” It’s true, but not exactly a revelation.
As the studio audience erupted in cheers, Stewart continued: “If your guy loses, bad things might happen, but the country is not over. And if your guy wins, the country is in no way saved. I’ve learned one thing over these last nine years—and I was glib at best and probably dismissive at worst about this: the work of making this world resemble one that you would prefer to live in is a lunch pail [bleep] job, day in and day out, where thousands of committed, anonymous, smart, and dedicated people bang on closed doors and pick up those that are fallen and grind away on issues till they get a positive result—and even then have to stay on to make sure that result holds. So the good news is, I’m not saying you don’t have to worry about who wins the election. I’m saying, you have to worry about every day before it and every day after, forever.” Then, of course, there was the obligatory final twist of black humor. “On the plus side,” Stewart cracked, “I am told that at some point, the sun will run out of hydrogen.”
To his credit, this is a message about the election that you won’t hear on MSNBC or CNN or Fox News, which will surely try to keep us watching throughout 2024 with hysterical coverage of the Trump-Biden rematch. It also served as both a rejoinder and a concession to critics who have, over the years, accused Stewart of the same failing correspondent Jordan Klepper voiced in yet another tongue-in-cheek roast of the returning host: “All you do is brainwash viewers into accepting a corrosive status quo when they could be out marching in the streets to effect change.” Still, it was a pretty safe takeaway. And it took a lot of wading through jokes and observations we’ve heard before to get there.
Stewart is, on balance, off to a strong start. But self-awareness will only get him so far. If his second term on The Daily Show is going to be more than just a fun victory lap and a ploy to save an ailing format, he needs to challenge his adoring fans as much as he makes them applaud.