Jon Stewart is back on TV with more control, more freedom and more gray hair. His new Apple TV+ show, The Problem With Jon Stewart, debuts Thursday and promises to tackle the tough questions facing the world.
But has America missed its smart-ass in chief since he departed The Daily Show in 2015? Is there still a place for Stewart’s left-leaning (fire)brand of comedy in the modern media landscape? Can TV actually exert any kind of power on public opinion anymore? Tune in every week on Apple TV+ to find out.
The Problem With Jon Stewart review
Stewart, longtime and most popular host of The Daily Show, returns with a news magazine-style show. He starts off each episode by introducing a topic, then investigates and interviews people to give the fullest possible understanding of the issues involved.
The first week he talks about the shameful treatment of veterans of the Iraq War. (Which is ironic, considering Apple TV+ just debuted a doc about how heroic the Bush administration was on 9/11.) The second week, he talks about civil liberties, and so on and so forth.
Stewart still does a lot of what he did on The Daily Show. He tees up clips to point out the hypocrisy of most people in charge of either a particular branch of government or the members of the press who spin the politicians’ work for them week after week. But he also goes deeper in the new Apple TV+ show.
The veterans affairs episode is clearly close to his heart. Stewart actually testified before Congress to try to get money for aid to help sick and dying 9/11 first responders. He saw firsthand what it looks like when the government turns its back on people who did a job “for the people” in their hour of need.
Stewart interviews people whose lives have been irrevocably ruined by this or that policy, putting a face to the injustice in a haunting and damning way. It’s like Real Time With Bill Maher with the polarity reversed, with empathy and horror in place of smugness and backslapping white supremacy.
I’m not happy about it either
For many people during the George W. Bush years, Stewart served as a sort of medication. Once a day, you’d watch him sift through the detritus of cable news embarrassment and politicians lying. Then he would try to leave you with some functioning semblance of truth and sanity.
The Daily Show didn’t fix anything, but it made a lot of people feel better about the nightmare world being wrought by an unchecked conservative establishment being given a healthy assist from the press. Stewart famously called out the likes of Judith Miller and Tucker Carlson when everyone else was content to let them lie and grouse and whine every night about the state of the world.
The trouble was, there were no checks and balances on Stewart himself. He became a brand. His own power was inflated to the point where people could talk about the things they saw on The Daily Show and use that as evidence that they were making a real-world difference.
How to make an actual difference
I know that sounds like a sweeping generalization but I have my own anecdotal evidence of this. I also look no further than the dispiriting 2010 stunt known as the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, led by Stewart and his old Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert. Designed to bring people back to their senses after the Bush years, it was meant as a parody of similar rallies thrown by media ghouls like Glenn Beck. But it’s not as though the rally achieved anything.
The Obama years lulled a lot of people into becoming complacent. It felt like the right work was being done on your behalf. However, a quick survey of everything awful done under the Obama administration proves that maybe just laughing at the myriad lies and foibles of the Shep Smiths and Wolf Blitzers of the world wasn’t really sufficient in trying to ensure that the world wouldn’t fall to pieces.
Granted, Stewart was under no obligation to actually do more radical work to restabilize American life. But considering how enormous a synecdoche he became for “resistance” during a crisis of democracy, it was a little underwhelming what form his praxis frequently took.
All this to say it’s an odd thing to have Stewart back. His face, which I saw so much of during high school that he might as well have been my civics teacher (and to be honest, he did kind of look like my civics teacher … and my favorite English teacher, come to think of it — shout out to Scott Eckstein and Peter Ammirati), I got used to no longer seeing.
Seeing Stewart tell jokes again (and jokes about Jake Paul and Chris Pratt no less, just to make things even weirder) is like being back in school. And yeah … that’s kind of cool. But as much as I still listen to the occasional My Chemical Romance song, I don’t know that I need to look back on everything.
Having said that, The Problem With Jon Stewart seems to have its heart in the right place. And these issues do need addressing. Stewart backed out of public life for a long time (all of the Trump years, which was probably for the best). Now, it’s clear that only an unending sense of fury at the myriad injustices continually perpetrated by the government in the wake of the war on terror (to which he became the de facto opposition) brought him back.
The Problem With Jon Stewart: Room to grow
The new Apple TV+ show isn’t a complete success minute to minute. (The writing staff is experiencing growing pains, but so did John Oliver‘s. So I don’t think that’s anything to worry about even if not all the jokes land.) But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t appear to have a lot of downsides, provided the response to Stewart is more measured than last time. And that is all but guaranteed.
I’ll be extremely curious to see if The Problem With Jon Stewart catches on — if combined nostalgia for Stewart and/or the need to have issues unpacked on a major network will make him the TV fixture he once was. Other Daily Show alums like Michelle Wolf, Larry Wilmore, Wyatt Cenac, Hasan Minhaj and Jordan Klepper all tried their own Daily Show-like talk shows in the wake of their departures, but each failed to garner the following and ratings required to survive.
Stewart was bigger than all of them at the height of his powers. We’ll see if he can break the curse of his own show.
Watch The Problem With Jon Stewart on Apple TV+
The first two episodes of The Problem With Jon Stewart premiere September 30 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Fridays.
Rated: Not yet rated
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.