Hey Jon, you know you can come back, right?
On the Feb. 27 episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” comedian Jon Stewart — former host of “The Daily Show,” and Colbert’s former boss — emerged from underneath Colbert’s desk to talk a little bit about the state of the nation. Stewart’s done this gag before — back in July, during the Republican National Convention, Stewart entered the same way, dressed in a grey t-shirt and looking vaguely wild, talking of “the farm” he’s retreated to. Since leaving “The Daily Show” in 2015, Stewart’s made a carefully scattered number of appearances on “The Late Show,” “Full Frontal,” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
He’s grown out his beard, talks a bit fondly of the animals he’s living with, and eschews the suits-and-neckties that he wore for 16 years as the anchor of Comedy Central’s flagship show. In one of the most contentious and maddening election seasons in recent history, Stewart’s regular voice on media and politics was missed; at the same time, it’s hard to deny the guy a break.
But Monday night’s appearance seemed to be less about appeasing an adoring audience with another intermittent on-camera appearance. More than ever, Stewart seemed to be on “The Late Show” because he desperately misses having a platform. When he emerged out of the tunnel, he was even wearing a dress shirt and tie; Colbert offered him a chair similar to his own, which Stewart then used to try to muscle Colbert out from behind the desk.
It was all very jovial, of course, as is the relationship between the two comedians — and Stewart, on anyone else’s show, is very careful to not hog the spotlight unless expressly invited to. The comedian is aware of his own popularity, and tries not to detract from the star power of his colleagues.
At the same time, this is the second appearance on “The Late Show” in a month: On Jan. 31, Stewart appeared as a guest, dressed in what he joked were the fashion cues he’d taken from the president. (He wore a dead animal wrapped around his head and a red necktie that appeared to be 10 feet long.) That appearance wasn’t enough, apparently, to get everything he wanted off his chest; for his second appearance he even moved to the more familiar territory of sitting behind the desk with his stack of blue paper, drawing circles with a Sharpie. Colbert, in his characteristic drawl, made a fine point of it. “Jon. You miss it, don’t you?” Stewart responded with a lot of thumping the desk with his fists. “Yes, I miss it!” His commentary in both of his “Late Show” appearances seemed to be making points that he’d refined over and over in his head (he quipped that he’d been talking to “the animals” about his feelings about the Trump presidency, and in return a barn spider and woven a web with the message “PLEASE GET A JOB”).
As his prepared monologue on Monday night indicated, there is some ineffable magic to Stewart’s delivery that is unique and inimitable — whether that is just the way he holds eye contact with the camera as he invites the audience to share his indignation, or the slightly Yiddish inflection he takes on when mocking Trump’s assertion that he’s “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” Stewart predicted that Donald Trump would run for president back in 2012, in an uncanny bit of joking around that ended with him observing a Trump candidacy would be great for his business.
In a way, it kind of was — Stewart’s methodology is the industry standard for a burgeoning number of new comedians and established late-night hosts. Stewart, as New Yorker of a younger generation, is kind of the anti-Trump: Where Trump is all ego and bluster, Stewart is self-effacing to the point of actual disappearance; where Trump harangues his audiences about “fake news,” Stewart is apt to parry with dogged textual analysis. Stewart is a bit more of a statesman than a comedian; Trump is a bit more of a comedian than a politician. “The Daily Show” methodology popularized under Stewart’s leadership seems to be designed precisely for this type of demagogue, this exact threat to democracy, these exact lying liars. But Stewart has recused himself from one of the most tumultuous moments in politics — a moment in which he could provide a unique point-of-view, as he himself seems to think.
So now what?
In 2015, right after he left Comedy Central, Stewart signed a four-year production deal with HBO to produce animated short-form content; more details about the project have trickled out, but the premiere date keeps jumping ahead. The last estimate from Casey Bloys, president of HBO, put it at “February or March” of 2017 — which is to say, right now. Whatever this project is, it hasn’t surfaced yet.
Considering that Stewart created a sub-genre of late-night comedy that has become a staple — and hired or supervised nearly all of the comedians who went on to helm their own shows — Stewart’s hesitance to jump back into the fray makes some sense. Perhaps he’s too much of a big deal to go back to the nuts and bolts of starting up a new daily talk show, even in a different format from “The Daily Show.”
But on the other hand: Audiences love Stewart, and Stewart appears to love getting behind a desk and reading the news, with his own commentary and side-eye punctuating his presentation. On Colbert’s show, he’s clearly having a blast, but that hesitancy is there, too; in his own show, you can imagine Stewart might expand a little, might get comfortable with a bit more insanity. Stewart cited time with his family as one of the major reasons he wanted to leave “The Daily Show.” Why not “The Weekly Show with Jon Stewart,” in some capacity or another? It’s hard to imagine that a weekly show from Stewart, who is very much a unique comedian despite popularizing a certain format, would really detract so much from the great work done by other anchors on other networks.
Of course, there are probably other important considerations to be made for Stewart’s return to television (and who knows, maybe this new HBO project will get a premiere date tomorrow). But given how torn Stewart seems to be about having relinquished his platform, it’s worth stating for the record: Jon, we’d love to have you back. We miss you, and maybe more importantly, you miss us.