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Jon Stewart is as funny as ever. But the world has changed around him.

Stewart is as funny as ever. But the world has changed around him.



Jon Stewart is as funny as ever. But the world has changed around him.
Jon Stewart is as funny as ever. But the world has changed around him.

Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show has been, on the metrics, a success. According to Comedy Central, his first episode back on February 12 was watched by 1.85 million total viewers across premiere simulcasts and encores, up 110 percent from Trevor Noah’s final episode in 2022. It’s also a major improvement on Stewart’s last show. The Problem with Jon Stewart, which ran on Apple TV+ from 2021 to 2023, was routinely drawing in audiences as low as 40,000 people.

“Jon Stewart” and “The Daily Show” on their own are flawed brands. “Jon Stewart on The Daily Show,” on the other hand? That’s a combination of such heady nostalgia that the viewers pour in.

Still, Stewart’s first episode proved that his appeal is not just pure nostalgia. There is some kind of alchemy that occurs when Jon Stewart gets behind that old Daily Show desk. He knows the format of the show so well; he plays it like a virtuoso.

He eases into his monologue with no rush, breaking out the same Borscht Belt voices and self-deprecating barbs he used to play with in 2015, talking in the same relaxed patter that builds to the same crescendo of righteousness. He is so delighted by the chance to play a gotcha reel (in this case, members of the Trump family repeating “I can’t recall” during depositions after a discussion of Biden’s allegedly failing memory) that he almost manages to make the old trick feel new again. He almost manages to make you think, “Wow, Jon Stewart could have done something with the Trump era.” Almost.

Jon Stewart’s great satirical gift is his ability to puncture hypocrisy, which is why he became one of the most trusted sources of news in America during the 2000s. George W. Bush was Stewart’s perfect foil: a president who talked of compassionate conservatism and grand existential battles of good versus evil while lying to the public and embroiling America in dirty, vicious wars that dragged on for decades. No one could puncture Bush’s pieties as well as Jon Stewart. Nothing was more satisfying to watch than Stewart’s mugging face, eyes wide with faux shock, next to a video montage that promised to expose, once and for all, that Bush administration doublespeak.

Stewart’s version of The Daily Show lost some of its urgency during the Obama administration, as the brand of liberal centrism he championed ascended to cultural primacy and he lost his ability to position himself as the scrappy outsider unmasking a lying president. Still, most presidents have their hypocrisies, and Stewart found plenty to puncture during the Obama years: his initially tepid support of gay marriage, the drone warfare, the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups. He left The Daily Show in 2015, just before Trump became the Republican candidate and the liberal consensus worldview of Daily Show viewers shattered.

Stewart, by and large, sat out the Trump years, so we don’t know for sure what his comedy would have looked like in that troubled era. We did, however, watch all the comedians who came up on The Daily Show try and fail to grapple with Trump, a president who never bothered to veil his indiscretions, who was so straightforwardly villainous that he had no hypocrisy there to be exposed. Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah — the more they talked about Trump, the more they seemed to become less funny and more earnest. They could not make his actions more absurd by hyperbole. Sarcasm was no longer attractive to audiences, who craved clear demarcations between the comedians who were on their side and those on Trump’s side. Robbed of their most effective weapons, liberal comics ended up spending the Trump years like much of the left did: alternating between rage and tears.

“For the last 20 years we [the left] have owned the cultural terrain of comedy and irony, arguably to good effect,” Nick Marx, a media scholar who studies political humor, told me in 2022. “The Trump era made liberals forget that. It made our comedians want to act like paternal figures who would pat us on the head.”

As liberal comedy faltered, right-wing comedy rushed to fill the power vacuum. Conservative comedians now position themselves as the truly edgy and transgressive ones, the people speaking truth to the power of liberal elitists, the heirs apparent to the tradition begun by Jon Stewart.

“There’s a rebelliousness in the way people think of this right-wing comedy, right?” Matt Sienkiewicz said in 2022. Sienkiewicz co-authored That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them alongside Marx. “Even if it really is regressive and pointing back to old dominant ideas. But it can be branded as being the opposite of Stephen Colbert crying about January 6 during his monologue, which is very much not cool to the teens.”

Stewart’s return comes not during the Trump era but during the Biden presidency, just as the country begins to stare down the possibility of a second Trump term. Biden is the sort of traditional president Stewart excels at handling; it’s not surprising that the sharpest moment of his first episode came when he criticized Biden’s administration for trying to shame the press out of covering criticism of Biden’s age. But Stewart has yet to prove his ability to cover a man like Donald Trump, especially in a moment when the right has successfully positioned itself as the home of transgressive comedy.

As good as Jon Stewart’s ratings were on his first night, The Daily Show wasn’t the most-watched show on late-night. Over on Fox News, Gutfeld! got 2.2 million views. No matter how skillful Stewart’s performance has been, it’s hard to avoid the sense that he’s delivering a coda to a golden age that ended long ago.