A Hail Mary to Save The Daily Show

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

For me, the experience of watching The Daily Show belongs to a different, bygone era of TV. Either I flipped my cable box over to Comedy Central at 11 p.m. if I happened to be channel surfing that late or I caught up on my DVR the next day, eagerly fast-forwarding through the ads to get to Jon Stewart’s monologue. In 2024, I don’t even have cable, and I haven’t watched a Comedy Central show in years; my familiarity with The Daily Show during the Trevor Noah era, which lasted for seven years before hosting duties were handed to a rotation of guests, was limited to catching the occasional clip online. But Stewart’s return on Monday night was more than a nostalgia ploy—it was an actually funny piece of broadcast television, the rarest of throwbacks.

In something of a Hail Mary, Comedy Central has brought Stewart back to host its Monday-night shows through the fall elections, clearly hoping for a bump in relevance as its brand fades in the face of increased cord-cutting. Though Noah did find a niche for himself as host after a cautious start—his tone was chipper but laced with the cynicism of a more international perspective—he wisely departed before the grueling weekly schedule completely sapped his passion for the gig. Indeed, that’s partly why Stewart had called it quits in 2015, following many years of award-winning success. After leaving, Stewart directed a movie, hosted an AppleTV+ show called The Problem that focused more on journalism than on jokes, and started to seem out of step with modern-day comedy punditry. The earnestness of his jabs didn’t jibe with the post-satirical age ushered in by Donald Trump’s surreal presidency, in which younger, left-leaning audiences have gravitated toward more caustic humor.

Still, I fully understood the appeal of a reboot for both Stewart and Comedy Central. Despite some protestation otherwise, The Daily Show’s brand never really escaped Stewart, and its format seemed incapable of genuine change—it’ll always have a monologue, a comedy piece with a correspondent, and a guest interview, as it has since the Craig Kilborn days. The network has never figured out an ideal streaming setup for its shows, either—episodes repeat on Paramount+, which has yet to reach the popularity of Netflix or Disney+. Stewart’s return is ultimately most interesting from a meta perspective: Can he recapture the feeling of his broadcast-hosting work of yesteryear? If not, what will his new on-screen persona be in a media age that’s even more antagonistic and splintered than the Bush/Obama years during which he made his reputation?

The answer, at least from his performance last night, is surprisingly refreshing. Stewart’s grumpy and quizzical style on The Problem, fueled by sharp questioning and a noticeable lack of humor, was nowhere to be seen. As the Daily Show opening credits rolled and the camera swooshed around the cheering audience, a visibly more wizened Stewart did the usual desk routine he’d performed for 16 years as host: He scribbled madly on his notes, looked up at the camera, and then launched into an impish but incisive monologue on the week’s news.

His targets were familiar: Joe Biden, ripped in the headlines and in a recent Department of Justice report for his age and failing to beat that critique in a creaky press conference, and Trump, who Stewart dutifully (but gleefully) pointed out has had plenty of his own memory lapses on camera over the years. The format was the same old Daily Show, with Stewart supplying context over cut-up cable-news clips before dishing out a longer ramble about the necessity of investigating Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate that felt neither mean-spirited nor softball. In short, he didn’t miss much of a step, and the bouncy personality he seemed to have abandoned after his initial departure immediately rejoined him behind that desk.

Will that return to form matter much in this media landscape? The simple fact is that The Daily Show hasn’t been appointment television for a while, and in summoning past glories rather than attempting to forge something new, its viewership will probably stray further from the youthful demographic all cable networks crave. But there also aren’t a lot of pundits offering what Stewart is putting on the table. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert both provide plenty of political commentary—Meyers often fleshes out issues in a Stewart-ian manner with his “Closer Look” segments—but they’re both still leading with punch lines about bread-and-butter topics. Perhaps Stewart’s tendency toward a direct address will feel a little fresher in 2024. And, as the election approaches, his bluntness may better acclimate voters—at least the ones who are listening to him—to the looming stakes.

Or maybe the nostalgia will wear off quickly, his former audience will continue dissolving, and Stewart’s desk bits will be consigned to the massive swirl of YouTube clips, TikToks, and other chopped-up comedy segments that floats around the social internet. The influential thinky comic who could host a giant rally in Washington, D.C., calling for sanity may never regain the kind of sway he wielded back in the day. But Stewart’s return had a little more immediate juice than I might have predicted. Sure, the discourse is more fractured than ever, but he at least has a shot at refocusing our attention.

David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.


Leave a Comment

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .