In a little more than a week, Jon Stewart will return to the roost he ruled for nearly 16 years. He will be back hosting The Daily Show on Mondays starting February 12, at least for the duration of the election year. Apparently, Stewart is out to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong: Yes, you can go home again.
But does 2024 really need another political comedy voice? Despite his somewhat formidable skills, the political comedy landscape has grown—and is arguably, if one dare say it, more politically diverse—since Stewart abandoned his late night throne. Isn’t there some saturation point for things to satirize? Then again, the Taylor Swift-NFL “psy op” just entered the conversation. Welcome back, Jon, welcome back.
When Stewart left it in 2015, The Daily Show dominated political satire. But ratings collapsed soon after his departure. While the show’s producers have nothing but nice things to say about Trevor Noah, Stewart’s immediate successor, the truth is that viewership evaporated in his tenure. Yes, the show’s viral online presence increased, but as many media outlets have learned over the years, online hits don’t translate into either ratings or advertising dollars. And in fairness to Trevor Noah, Comedy Central itself was suffering as cord-cutting viewers switched to streaming.
With Noah’s departure in December 2022, The Daily Show launched yearlong tryouts for a permanent host. The search was so protracted that longtime correspondent Roy Wood Jr. eventually quit the show. And why not? Anyone who saw Wood’s evenhanded, zing-all-sides 2023 White House Correspondents’ Dinner appearance should realize that Wood was arguably the most obvious permanent replacement pick.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s own return to the screens, The Problem With Jon Stewart, had a major problem: finding an audience. Apple TV+ canceled it after two seasons. In that sense, Stewart’s return to Comedy Central reeks a little of desperation on both sides. Regardless, while Stewart will likely be welcomed back by a certain aging Gen-X/older millennial cohort on the left, it’s fair to wonder if there’s any wider audience left for him to reach.
In some ways, Stewart looks like a victim of his own success. The snarky satirical style he pioneered is already well-represented nightly by one of his own protégés, Stephen Colbert. Stewart’s election year stunt is being done in an arguably better fashion by another Stewart protégé, John Oliver, and his show Last Week Tonight. Late Night anchor and former Saturday Night Live writer Seth Meyers also occupies an overlapping motif.
Meanwhile, the broader culture has fractured so much that a claim liberals could reasonably make two decades ago—“conservatives can’t do funny”—no longer rings true. Political comedy is no longer the sole province of the left. In recent years, the most popular humor-infused late-night talk show was not hosted by Stephen, Jimmy, or the other Jimmy. It was hosted by Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld!, who nightly targets Biden’s age, border chaos, big city crime, and the like in the traditional talk show format. Last July, Fox News even moved Gutfeld! to the 10 p.m. slot in an apparent vote of confidence. The Donald Trump era, it seems, has disrupted the political comedy formula and created something of a permission structure for non-PC, anti-woke humor.
And not just on the right, either. There’s also what can be deemed a harder-to-define, non-progressive satirical comedy finding expression on well-funded podcasts and streaming services. Real Time With Bill Maher has been revitalized as its host now fully embraces calling out both sides with a far greater intensity in the past (to the obvious outrage of progressives). Dave Chappelle has ventured from the safe harbor of his traditional racial observations to the more dangerous waters of taking jabs at trans ideology, yet he nonetheless receives continued Netflix support. So does heterodox comic Bill Burr. And Joe Rogan, inarguably the most influential spiritual heir to Stewart’s role as comic-cum-interlocutor, commands a Spotify audience of nearly 15 million subscribers. He regularly platforms many voices progressives would prefer to see permanently canceled. Forget that, Spotify just renewed Rogan for $250 million and now shares him with YouTube).
Stewart and The Daily Show should certainly benefit from the renewed buzz of their renewed union. But can they stand out in a cluttered environment that is arguably an aspect of their own comedic legacy they may not recognize?
They might not recognize their political legacy, either. Stewart was at his peak around October 2004 when he appeared on CNN’s debate program, Crossfire. It was then that the comedian went after co-host Tucker Carlson, years before his switch to Fox News, in what has now become a famous and scathing time capsule. But with the benefit of 20/20-year hindsight, it’s fair to ask whether Stewart’s evisceration of Crossfire (and similar shows) was that insightful or fair (accusing Carlson of “hurting America” and calling him a “dick” speaks for itself). Barely three months after Stewart’s appearance, CNN fired Carlson; six months after that, Crossfire was canceled. How’d that work out? Sometimes striking down your perceived enemy has unintended consequences and unleashes even darker forces. Compared to today’s political culture, 2004 looks quaint.
Did Crossfire contribute to today’s debased politics? Perhaps. Did canceling it help slow a cultural decline (or CNN’s journalistic credibility for that matter)? Sure doesn’t look like it. To the contrary, while Crossfire’s format pushed political discourse into a coarser direction, at least there was an illusion (polite or otherwise) of both sides being represented in the manufactured “fight.” There was at least a mild reason for a conservative to tune into CNN and see both sides on screen. Today, there’s more political siloing than ever. Most right-wing voices on Fox News, most left-wing perspectives on MSNBC, and CNN just flailing.
In retrospect, we can ask some questions that should have been asked then. Why did the one-time “most trusted name in news” allow itself to be bullied by a self-described “fake news” comedian from a far smaller cable network? Many people point to the moment as a turning point in cable news. It was, but not for the reasons one might think.
Stewart continued to shine his whimsical lens on current events, cheered on by adoring fans convinced that he was speaking truth to power by calling out conservative hypocrisy while being more nearsighted with respect to the progressive variety. Can it be said that political literacy and cultural civility improved over the next 11 years since the 2004 Crossfire debacle? How about over the subsequent nine?
The landscape Stewart will return to really is dramatically different from the one he left in 2015. Nine years is a lifetime in politics, the equivalent of more than two presidential terms.* In that time Tucker Carlson’s comet soared and flamed out.
It’s an irony that the old Jon Stewart might appreciate: It took 20 years, but the ultimate fallout of the remarkable 2004 Stewart vs. Carlson clash was a MAD outcome that, two decades later, left both men gasping for relevance.
Correction, February 3, 2024: This article originally mischaracterized the length of Jon Stewart’s absence from political comedy.