Jon Stewart Knows Comedy’s Limits

Posted by on October 1, 2021 3:35 pm
Categories: Everything Else

It seems obvious now, in hindsight, that people expected too much from comedy in the first two decades of the new millennium—that it could make us better, make us healthier, undermine despots, change minds, enable progress, even save the republic. Those were enticing ideas, but Jon Stewart never seemed to fall for them. His job was making a comedy show, as he essentially told Tucker Carlson during a 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Comedy is comedy, and news is news—one of those things is supposed to inform people accurately and impartially about the world, and the other is Laura Ingraham. But seriously, when Stewart wrapped up his 16-year run hosting Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, in 2015, his penultimate episode included a montage dedicated to all of the things he’d supposedly “eviscerated” or “destroyed” or “annihilated,” including Fox News, racism, and ISIS. Despite all the breathless headlines, he said, “the world is demonstrably worse than when I started.”

Well, buckle up, I thought, sitting down to watch The Problem With Jon Stewart. I was anticipating the comedian’s new series, on Apple TV+, to kick off with a Daily Show–esque recap of horrors: cut after cut of the Capitol insurrection, the wildfires, the pussy grabbing and the pandemic and the now-regular allusions to white-replacement theory on Fox News, all accompanied by Stewart’s face contorting itself into a Edvard Munch–like howl. But something else happened in the six years he was off television. While jokes pinged around like oxygen molecules—necessary but flame-stoking—and the state of the world got even worse, Stewart found that he was better able to advocate for meaningful change from the sidelines, without being funny at all. In 2019, after years of lobbying the government to stop limiting health benefits for 9/11 first responders, he helped pass a bill that committed to funding those benefits effectively for life.

[Read: How 9/11 changed what we laugh at]

That might be why The Problem With Jon Stewart is rarely funny. You can almost feel for Apple, having landed one of the true groundbreaking forces in late-night comedy only to find that he’s now a slightly more wisecracking version of Dan Rather. This is, essentially, a news show—its showrunner, Brinda Adhikari, was a longtime journalist for ABC and CBS News—and its intention isn’t humor at all. The first episode, “War,” is a mostly sober analysis of the U.S. Army’s use of burn pits for disposing of waste and its unwillingness to adequately fund health care for veterans who struggle to prove that they are suffering dire consequences from their exposure to related toxins. (Stewart interviews Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, who agrees that there’s a problem but says the department needs more proof that the pits are causing illness.) In the episode’s opening moments, viewers see the writers on Stewart’s team discussing what their series can be, and Stewart recalls how powerful it was to feature 9/11 first responders on one episode of The Daily Show, instead of his more traditional cast of actors and authors with something to promote. “Let’s find the stakeholders, the voices that can give that witness testimony,” he says. “How can that not be the show?”

And so that is the show. Ignore all of the digs Stewart makes at his grizzled appearance (“very few people would be happy looking like an anti-smoking poster”). He still effuses charisma out of his pores, still reels viewers in with the lone hook of a skeptical eyebrow. He’s still brutally sarcastic—“if you love someone,” he says, after a montage of Americans saying thank you to the troops, “let them go fuck themselves.” He’s still handy with a cultural reference. (The U.S. military, he points out, gets rid of its overseas trash “the same way Jake Paul does.”) But the tone has changed. A panel discussion in the first episode, among veterans who say their lives and lungs have been scarred by burn pits, is urgent in a way that feels more suited to the nightly news than to comedy TV.

Stewart jokes that the next time he sets foot in a comedy club he’ll be relentlessly mocked as a do-gooding Mother Teresa. But the boundaries between comedy and advocacy have been fluid for a long time. What is Nanette if not an autopsy of comedy’s structural inability to deal with trauma? What is Fox News’s prime-time lineup if not a cynical kind of self-satire with its own memes, even its own language? More recently, Amy Schumer made an HBO series that effectively argued for a better understanding of the physical condition of pregnancy, while the most celebrated comedy series and specials of the past decade have probed subjects such as poverty, racism, depression, sexual assault, grief, and infertility.

[Read: American cynicism has reached a breaking point]

Which is why I think The Problem With Jon Stewart has space to be funnier. Right now, Stewart still seems a little stung by all of the critiques of his shtick over the years—that he was too glib, too smug, too performatively outraged. But the reason he was able to advocate so effectively for cancer-stricken first responders is the same reason he was able to sell Apple a much more expensive version of PBS NewsHour: He’s Jon Stewart. He has a platform because of his ineffable ability to make you watch him. Taking things seriously doesn’t have to mean leaning all the way out from the elements people loved about him in the first place.

The second episode, “Freedom,” is more emblematic of what the series could be. It’s a withering take on the American right’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that counters shouty talking points with acute logic. (In a segment called “What’s! More! Hitler!” Stewart points out that mask enforcement and vaccine mandates are far less resonant of fascism than the body count and territorial ambitions of COVID-19 itself are.) The cathartic gags come in service of a larger point—an expanded analysis of what freedom actually means at the individual level, and at the communal. Another panel talking about the global rise of authoritarianism feels overly earnest and slightly scattered, but more bracing is a short interlude featuring the actor Jenifer Lewis as an “oppression mentor” for people who compare mask wearing to slavery. Enslaved people “picked cotton,” she says with regal authority. “You just have to wear it.” It’s the kind of distillation of absurdity that can make you feel as if reason and order still exist somewhere out there in the ether. And it’s funny as hell.

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