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I’m not sure that I’ve necessarily missed Jon Stewart on my TV.
Now, before you dust off your pitchforks, let me clarify. The Daily Show, in its incarnation under Stewart’s watch, was one of the best and most influential TV shows ever made. And part of having such influence is that it lives on after you’re off the air. Even if Stewart left TV in 2015, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee carry on with a Stewart-inspired voice on a nightly or weekly basis, while Larry Wilmore, Hasan Minhaj, Michelle Wolf and Wyatt Cenac have done the same for briefer periods. And that’s saying nothing of the exceptional and initially underrated work that Trevor Noah has done as Stewart’s direct successor on The Daily Show.
The Problem With Jon Stewart
Airdate: Thursday, Sept. 30
That may be why, having watched two episodes of Apple TV+’s The Problem With Jon Stewart, I’m not sure I’m necessarily thrilled to have Jon Stewart back on my TV. Not yet. Or not entirely.
The problem with The Problem With Jon Stewart (I’m creatively lazy and if you give me a layup, I’m taking a layup) is that critics have been sent two episodes that seem to represent two completely different visions of the show, one that feels like a specific and refined addition to the comedy-news hybrid landscape, and one that feels like an uninspired (but not wholly unfunny) rehash of the longer-form, issue-specific shows that Stewart’s heirs pioneered in carving out their own spaces.
The first episode, titled “War,” has a clean and presumably reusable three-act structure.
In the first act, Stewart semi-seriously goofs on a broad topic before refining it to the episode’s actual “problem.” In this case, it’s the question of when our universal support for “our troops” becomes a support-of-convenience, particularly looking at the health risk presented by so-called burn pits on military bases and the failure of government bureaucracy to adequately treat their consequences. In the second act, Stewart leads a panel conversation with people who are directly and specifically affected by the problem. In this case, it’s a group of veterans and veteran-adjacent advocates, sharing personal stories and searing condemnations of a busted system. In the final act, Stewart attempts to seek answers on how to address and remedy the problem. In this case, Stewart sits down with Denis McDonough, secretary of Veterans Affairs, to vent and explore possible recourse.
The episode is peppered with Stewart’s insecurities about his TV return and the purpose of his new show. Its humor is driven by gags about Apple TV+’s brand identity, the fact that he’s aged a little since MTV’s You Wrote It, You Watch It, and jokes about the episode’s lack of jokes. More than comedy, it’s driven by Stewart’s personal passion. He’s invested in every question and every conversation, and the whole thing has purpose. Even if it isn’t tied to a single real-world news peg, it’s completely timely.
The second episode, titled “Freedom,” is an episode of The Daily Show, or rather an episode of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, stretched to 44 minutes.
In this episode, Stewart begins with a rant about claims that COVID protocols represent a sacrifice of freedoms, targeting right-wing talking points, especially comparisons between mask-wearing or vaccine mandates and Nazi Germany. It’s a Daily Show monologue right down to Stewart’s uncoiled exasperation and various beloved mannerisms. That’s followed by an extended, two-part panel conversation with three international guests determined to illustrate how actual authoritarian regimes behave and why we’re not that. It’s less specific, less timely and unnervingly smug, especially given that the total number of viewers of a new Jon Stewart show likely to have compared vaccine passports to Hitler is close to zero.
I’m completely accepting of a problem for which the solution is “Stop being selfish and stop being stupid,” but couching the experiences of civilians in Egypt, the Philippines and Venezuela exclusively in “See, this is worse than the United States!” terms leaves an icky aftertaste. There’s little storytelling imperative to this episode and, without that, the structure falls apart.
Even in the episode I liked, there’s a work-in-progress aspect to the structure. Periodically, and for no real reason, Stewart announces a break, as if a reflex from years of kicking to commercials, for little filmed “bits,” almost none of which are really funny. They tend to be derivative, like “Ken Burns Presents Ken’s Burn” — basically Kate McKinnon’s “Ginsburn” gag from SNL sans embellishment. Each episode is interspersed with behind-the-scenes conversations with Stewart’s writers and producers, which accentuate the diversity of the staff but are basically a variation on the cacophonous cackling of the TMZ TV show, with Stewart as a less-dehydrated version of Harvey Levin.
It’s my hunch that some viewers will have the exact opposite reaction, preferring the comic familiarity of Stewart’s outrage in the second episode to the sincerity in the first. It’ll be interesting to see which way subsequent episodes lean. Jon Stewart’s voice may not necessarily be essential to today’s TV landscape, but these episodes, hit-and-miss though they are, show how he might absolutely have value to add.
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