Opinion: Jon Stewart’s brilliant return

Editor’s Note: Bill Carter covered the media business for more than 25 years at The New York Times. He has also been a contributor to CNN, and the author of four books about television, including “The Late Shift.” He was the Emmy-nominated writer of the HBO film adaptation of that book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Would he be political? Would he be funny? Would he still have his fastball?

Bill Carter - Bill Carter
Bill Carter - Bill Carter

Would he still be Jon Stewart, the Jon Stewart whose take on the infuriating foolishness and corruption of American public life and events made “The Daily Show” hilariously compelling viewing for 16 years?

Based on Stewart’s return to the anchor desk on Comedy Central Monday night, let’s give that entire list a resounding, “Oh yes he would.”

Stewart’s first night back was full of high energy, big-fisted punches of comedy and satire, lots of commercials and no shelter for presidential candidates of either party. Nor, at one peak-comedy moment, for the host himself.

The show looked and sounded much like the one Stewart left, with a slashing monologue, illustrated by brilliantly chosen video, followed by mock anchor-reporter interactions with the show’s cast of “correspondents.”

Inevitably the main focus was on the presidential election. (Stewart told “CBS Mornings” in an interview Monday that the reason he was returning to his old haunt was that he “wanted to have some place to unload thoughts as we get into this election season.”)

His central thought last night: Why are we stuck with the same two old guys?

The show resurrected its old “Indecision” election-year motif, and Stewart tried out several potential iterations, including “Indecision 2024: Electile Dysfunction.” He finally seemed to settle on: “Indecision 2024: What the F#@k Are We Doing?” (The use of highly identifiable bleeped epithets remains a show trademark.)

Neither of the geriatric party front-runners was spared. President Joe Biden was battered for the special counsel’s description of an “elderly man with a poor memory.” But Stewart found more fodder in Biden’s appearance on TikTok praising Travis Kelce mother’s chocolate chip cookies. “How do you go on TikTok and end up looking older?” Stewart wanted to know.

He also disparaged Biden’s description of what Stewart called “Israel’s incessant bombing of civilians” in Gaza as “over the top.” He couldn’t believe how trivial that sounded — basically the same as his mother’s critique of the Super Bowl half-time show: “Did they need to be on roller skates?”

As for the President’s massive press conference gaffe, confusing Mexico with Egypt in referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “Geography buffs might have noticed, Gaza and Mexico do not share a border,” Stewart joked. But it would be even worse, Stewart said, if Biden thought the President of Mexico is actually named “Si, Si.”

“The Daily Show” audience, once so pro-Democratic that Stewart had to urge them not to boo jokes skewering former President Barack Obama, had no problem eating up the barbs about Biden’s age. Maybe because Stewart hardly gave former President Donald Trump a pass.

In an example of the show’s signature excavation of strategically perfect old video, the mentions of Biden’s forgetfulness in his special counsel deposition were backed up by video from Trump’s previous depositions in legal cases, where he said he forgot just about everything, including having once said he has a great memory.

Stewart also only had to play a few recent clips of Trump, including his saying Democrats would change the name of Pennsylvania if they won, to get laughs on their own.

The mutual assured destruction of the candidates over their age focus, which Stewart defended as totally fair because voters have the right to question the acuity of candidates, reached a high point when he stressed that these two men are by far the oldest people ever to run for president, “breaking, by only four years, the record that they set!”

As a visual exclamation point, Stewart brought the camera in tight, pointing to his own more-lined face, gray hair and beard, saying, “Look at me: Look what time hath wrought.” He noted that he is about 20 years younger than the two candidates and they could only wish to look only as old as he does. (He’s 61.)

Stewart was greeted by a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation from the studio audience, which looked younger than most late-night audiences, one reason perhaps for the heavy commercial load and extra length, coming in at about 50 minutes rather than 30. The show was a big draw for advertiser-coveted younger viewers during Stewart’s previous run.

He made overt acknowledgement of his return after a more than eight-year absence at the top of his monologue, starting up with: “Now, where was I?” (Whether conscious or not, it was an homage to a famous line from a late-night legend, Jack Paar of the “The Tonight Show,” who, after an infamous walk-off from the show in 1960, opened his return with, “As I was saying.”)

The best inside joke of the night came when Stewart was having his colloquies with the correspondents. Dulcé Sloan, one of the holdovers who was touted as a potential permanent host after the departure of Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, got increasingly faux-angry responding to the idea of a rematch of Biden-Trump, saying, “We need more than just the same show with an older, but familiar face.”

Stewart showed some mock offense that she might be talking about him and not the candidates.

That bit may have drawn the biggest laughs of a night filled with them. But it also underscored one problem “The Daily Show” has with this comeback: Stewart is only going to host the shows on Monday nights. He remains a very tough act to follow.

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