Critic's Notebook: The Nostalgia of Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' Return

Trevor Noah has been doing well as host, but we still can miss Stewart.
Courtesy of Comedy Central
Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show With Trevor Noah'

Who had "32" on the betting pool for the number of episodes before Trevor Noah would feel sufficiently comfortable with his place as host of The Daily Show to welcome back Jon Stewart?

On Monday night, Stewart dropped by The Daily Show unannounced, filling in what had been slated as a TBD guest slot.

Stewart interrupted Noah at the start of the episode's second segment.

"In the reptile kingdom, iguanas are king. But the question is ... do they have ... " said Noah as the audience began to roar. Alas, we never learned what Noah's question was regarding iguanas because the reason for the cheer was Stewart, still sporting his out-of-work beard and donning a layered T-shirt, in contrast to Noah's suited spiffiness, but eschewing the disheveled hobo look he's cultivated since he left The Daily Show this summer.

Stewart's arrival probably accomplished exactly what Noah and company feared, but also had to expect: We'd begun to move on, but now viewers are likely back to being nostalgic for the man who transformed The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn's often-funny den of fratty snark into one of the most essential pieces of cultural and political criticism in the history of the medium.

Strike that. Stewart's arrival accomplished something more important as its primary aspiration. The departed host was on hand not as a guest, but essentially as a slightly glorified correspondent, presenting a feature on struggles to get the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act reauthorized.

In standard correspondent style, Stewart led a camera crew up to Capitol Hill, where they attempted to confront the senators dragging their feet on the Zadroga Act, which was designed to provide heath services for 9/11 first responders but expired on October 1. Stewart, who had one of his most powerful and acclaimed Daily Show moments when he initially returned to the air after the terrorist attacks on New York City, long has been an advocate for this cause and was able to get to several of the senators' doors, but only met  and only briefly  Sen. Rob Portman during his time in D.C.

Back in the studio, Stewart attempted to reconvene the four-person panel of first responders who appeared together on behalf of this issue back in 2010. Two of the panelists from that show were too sick to appear, and one passed away, leaving only FDNY firefighter Kenny Specht to share Stewart's umbrage.

"The pay-for-it thing is what drives me nuts," said Stewart, voice cracking, when Specht shared a common explanation for why the act hasn't been extended. "They have paid for this bill over and over again with the lives of their friends and with their health, so if I hear one more of these guys talking about a pay-for, it's gonna make me insane."

The appearance ended with Noah and Stewart urging viewers to tweet at recalcitrant senators with the hashtag #WorstResponders.

Actually, the appearance ended with Stewart standing behind Noah, mouthing the words as the host introduced the night's "Moment of Zen," as literal a manifestation of every successor's fears of replacement as when Noah initially greeted Stewart with, "Are you here to take the show back? I heard about this in American TV."

Stewart isn't Jay Leno, and when he attempted to calm Noah's feigned nervousness, it felt sincere (plus he's got his own HBO deal), but when it comes to The Daily Show, the reminder of Stewart's past  or, to be more seasonal, the reminder of the Ghosts of Hosts Past  is probably more potent.

Let this be said: Trevor Noah has done a decent job as host of The Daily Show and, at times, he's actually been terrific. When the host has had material that seemed earmarked for his specific voice, he's offered spot-on incredulous outrage with a smile. His American-voiced impressions are a little one-note, but they're varied, and his takes on Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have been particularly lacerating at times. At other times, though, it's been hard not to feel like the writers still were approaching Noah as Stewart or as Generic Daily Show Host, giving him jokes that run counter to his effective "I'm just a newcomer on these shores" faux-naive schtick. There's just no way, to find a meaningless example, for Noah to sell a punchline chiding long-suffering Eagles fans, and when those words are put in his mouth, they jeopardize the sincerity of everything around them. Like, "If he's just a parrot there, how am I supposed to believe what he says about Fox News or Donald Trump?"

Noah's biggest failing continues to be his interviewing skills. He's done decently with some serious conversations, including his chat with Ta-Nehisi Coates and several presidential candidates (none in recent weeks). When Noah sits down with actors or more traditional "celebrities," though, his tendency to rely on fawning or, worse, recitations of their credits has made for conversations that sometimes rise to the level of banal, but more frequently swirl awkwardly  see his Jack Black, Brie Larson and Seth Rogen interviews for lowlights.

When in doubt, Noah always has been able to rely on his strong pack of correspondents, including new breakouts Roy Wood, Jr. and Desi Lydic. Stewart's piece, complete with clueless Congressional underlings, adorably actorly children and steadily building pique, proved he would be a fine addition to the correspondent roster, should he be interested in the pay cut.

Pairing Stewart and Noah in the same frame showcased the fresh host to his worst advantage. As Stewart ranted and lectured, punctuating his indignation with digs at elected officials and some vicious body blows directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Noah only could shadowbox, smiling and nodding along with his predecessor and sometimes chirping in with perfunctory setups or lame and unnecessary punctuation. This was Stewart's cause, Stewart's segment and Stewart's moment, but with Stewart bringing urgency, Noah looked even more like the child misplaced at the grown-up table.

Noah has had serious moments of his own during his brief Daily Show tenure, and he has proven competent at extinguishing his pearly whites to talk with sobriety about the latest mass shooting or terrorist attack  how horrifying that this has been a recurring thing over only two-plus months  but his youth and his chosen persona aren't tailored for that mode. Noah never has seemed glib, which is an achievement, but putting him next to Stewart, even for 15 minutes on Monday, was a clash of gravity and levity, of battle-hardened wisdom and inexperienced uncertainty.

Monday's episode was, to some degree, a reminder of how inopportune Stewart's departure window was, taking him out of a 2016 election cycle that has needed him. It was a fault of production timing and not Noah's administration that Monday's episode concentrated on already-stale jokes about MSNBC's televised raid on the home of the alleged San Bernardino shooters and growing-stale musing on Obama's Sunday address instead of more current derision of Donald Trump's virulently anti-Muslim policy suggestions, but it made Noah's place in the conversation feel a step behind. Noah has, in general, had difficulties finding his own angle on the Republican free-for-all, but a nightly approach to that slow-developing chaos also has stymied Stephen Colbert.

It may be just that smartly targeted political satire is difficult, and we took for granted how easy Stewart and company made it look and how natural he made it seem in his Daily Show comeback on Monday.