The Daily Show

In Calling Out Tucker Carlson, Jon Stewart Reminds Us He Has (Old-Fashioned) Skills

Author: Editors Desk, Jason Zinoman Source: N.Y Times
February 26, 2024 at 06:18
Jon Stewart has made “The Daily Show” relevant again.Credit...Matt Wilson/Comedy Central
Jon Stewart has made “The Daily Show” relevant again.Credit...Matt Wilson/Comedy Central
The comedian has always had a sharp Borscht Belt approach, but only in his return to “The Daily Show” can we see how he wields this style so expertly.

When it was announced that Jon Stewart was returning to “The Daily Show” every Monday, there was some understandable skepticism. His track record since leaving the program in 2015 has been spotty at best, including an HBO project that never aired and another on Apple TV+ that didn’t gain traction.

And yet, two weeks into his stint, Stewart has already done what seemed impossible: He has made “The Daily Show” relevant again.

Not only have ratings skyrocketed for Stewart, earning the biggest numbers since he left the show (including among young adult viewers, who went up 62 percent), but its rotating guest hosts have also benefited. Jordan Klepper and Desi Lydic, who each sat at the desk for three nights after Stewart, got more viewers than any guest host of the previous year. Maybe more important: Once again, people are talking — and grumbling — about “The Daily Show.” Along with plenty of critics on social media, Puck reported, many in the White House were paying close attention to Stewart’s first show.

Reboots of hits are often popular. And hosting weekly has meant that Stewart’s appearances are an event. But the first two shows revealed a simpler explanation for his swift success: Jon Stewart, who returns for a third one on Monday, is really good at this peculiar job. It’s an obvious point since he all but invented funny nightly political commentary. But it’s easy to forget what exactly he did so well; he was always overshadowed by the hype about him supposedly being the Walter Cr

Stewart didn’t just pioneer savvy and sometimes strident political humor on television. In a landscape dominated by tightly wound Midwestern gentiles (Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, David Letterman), he brought a ruthlessly populist Borscht Belt sensibility to late night.

Witness last week’s mockery of his old foil Tucker Carlson, who conducted a deferential interview with Vladimir Putin, then visited a Moscow supermarket in an attempt to show viewers that contrary to what the news media tells you, Russia is more than just a brutal authoritarian state. It has great produce.

After running a clip of Carlson picking up a loaf of bread, taking a whiff and looking ecstatic, the camera cut to Stewart’s eye-popping expression as he held an awkward silence and looked distinctly uncomfortable. His mugging here was more than just “Look at this idiot.” It was hinting at something without saying it, that there was something weird about Carlson’s enthusiasm. With great patience, he held the moment longer, and just when the idea of something sexual popped into your head, he said, “I’d hate to think what would have happened if he found a bagel.”

At that moment, the image of Tucker Carlson humping poppy-seeded bread flooded minds everywhere. Stewart himself cracked up, and he wasn’t the only one. There are few things more popular than a dumb joke smartly done. The way his timing got the audience to inch toward the punchline before he uttered it boosted the laugh, adding to the storied Jewish comic tradition of sex with food, ranging from “Portnoy’s Complaint” to that classic “Seinfeld” episode when George tries to combine his two passions by eating a pastrami sandwich while making love. (Jerry: “So how’s the fornicating gourmet?”)

Stewart is a funny stand-up but a better television performer. He understands that in this intimate medium, language can be less powerful than a tiny shift of expression. No one in late night has gotten more out of mugging. For 16 years on “The Daily Show,” he aired a clip of a politician or media figure saying something stupid, made a face and earned laughs. His rubbery expressions were broad, belonging more to the tradition of Carol Burnett than Carson. And if they began to seem a little formulaic, even cheap, that may underestimate the art of the mug.

He picked up skills from Letterman, who frequently walked up to the camera, stared at it and spied on us while we gazed at him. In his first show back, Stewart broke the fourth wall by asking the camera operator to move closer and closer to stare at his face again. He was making a point about elderly politicians, but he did it by saying very little. His grizzled visage spoke more plainly.

There’s something old-fashioned about his comic style, a ba-da-bump in his cadence, a touch of vaudeville in his pivots. On the same episode, he even told a Polish joke. No one on television does that anymore. But just because this kind of thing is out of step doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Stewart’s political instincts also seem to date from a less polarized time.

Whereas in the past he would brush off criticism by saying he was just joking, he took a slightly different tack in his return. He built criticism into his first episode, having Klepper and the correspondent Dulce Sloan mock his return, but he also highlighted negative posts on X arguing that he was creating false a equivalency by worrying over President Biden’s age as a factor in the election: “I guess as the famous saying goes: Democracy dies in discussion,” he said.

The discussion part of the show, though, is most in need of improvement. His first two interviews, with sober journalists, felt rushed and awkward. In a change since he last hosted, political voices rarely disagree on these shows anymore. But some of Stewart’s finest moments have been in dialogue or debate. His skewering of Jim Cramer stands out. The best and most viral moments on his Apple series came when he took a prosecutorial approach to politicians.

In explaining Carlson’s generous treatment of Russia, Stewart argued that on the right, the old framework of capitalist vs. Communist had given way to a new one of woke vs. unwoke.

Indeed, since he left “The Daily Show,” a small army of comic political voices, including the popular podcaster Joe Rogan and scandal-plagued stand-ups like Roseanne Barr and Russell Brand, has have focused on mocking wokeness. Stewart used to regularly engage Fox News and CNN, but the players in this crowded field, who often blur lines between comedy and punditry, are also inheritors of Stewart’s legacy, which raised the political stature of comedians in our culture. Whether Stewart chooses to engage with them will be interesting to watch this year.

Stewart finished his take on Carlson by pointing to the death of Aleksei A. Navalny and the crackdown on those mourning him in Russia. He said that Russian subways and supermarkets may be nicer than the ones in America, but that came at “the literal price of freedom.”

It was a reminder that Stewart can often sound more like a politician than a comic. He has an earnest patriotic streak that like his mugging can come off as a little corny, but that is also part of his appeal.

One of the critical moments in his career was his first monologue after Sept. 11. Bill Maher, the only current talk show host who has been doing political comedy on television longer than Stewart, lost his ABC show, “Politically Incorrect,” after favorably comparing the courage of those who fly planes into buildings with those who drop missiles from a distance.

Three night later, Stewart made a point of rejecting those who would praise any part of the attack, then ended a sober speech on a hopeful note, pointing out that the view from his apartment was no longer the World Trade Center, but the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t beat that,” he said. A biography of Stewart was titled “Angry Optimist.” The idea of an optimistic show about today’s politics, well, that makes me laugh.


Jason Zinoman is a critic at large for The Times. As the paper’s first comedy critic, he has written the On Comedy column since 2011. More about Jason Zinoman

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