The most surprising thing about Jon Stewart’s recent defense of the comic and podcaster Joe Rogan might have been that it made waves at all.
Stewart, on a podcast affiliated with his Apple TV Plus series “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” called the reaction to claims Rogan has made about COVID-19 vaccines “a mistake.” Stewart compared Rogan, the podcaster and comic, to “dishonest, bad actors,” and said that identifying such people “is so much more important to me.” He added, “You have to engage. Like, how do you not engage with people? The whole point of engagement is, hopefully, clarification… It might be a fool’s errand, but I will never give up on engagement.”
This argument brought Stewart — a discourse-shifting TV icon in his time as host of “The Daily Show,” and a figure who has lately struggled to break into the conversation — back into the news. But Stewart making the point that engagement is deeply necessary feels off, or as though he isn’t aware of his own past five or six years. Stewart retired from “The Daily Show” in 2015; his first splashy public act after that was releasing the movie he wrote and directed, “Irresistible” in 2020. (HBO and Stewart mutually walked away from a planned animation project in 2017.) To borrow Stewart’s phrasing, during a time when identifying dishonest, bad actors was as urgently necessary as any in recent American history, Stewart chose to give up on engagement, making his statements now feel hollow at best.
To be clear: People in the public eye have every right to take breaks and to come back when they have something to say. But watching Stewart’s attempted return to the limelight is an at-times-vicariously-embarrassing reminder that the audience has the right to move on, too. Stewart, at the peak of “The Daily Show,” was for his viewers a voice of reason and a reliable untruth detector. But the political response shifted during the Trump era, the years Stewart sat out, in massive ways, and Stewart has lately alternately assumed that his fandom is right where he left them or overcorrected in strident and odd ways.
To wit: Stewart’s “Irresistible,” notionally about the fallout of the 2016 election, was a movie about national politics whose tone might best be described as “general bemusement” — a strange thing for a movie about what it was about and released when it was, and suggesting that Stewart ultimately had little skin in the game. “Irresistible” depicted the polling and consulting apparatuses of both parties descending on a small-town mayoral election in order to make the case that both sides had fallen out of touch with what real Americans want. The film’s insistence on probing the professional left as hard or harder than the professional right felt less like tough-mindedness than a performance of it; the movie was as critical of Rose Byrne’s Kellyanne Conway figure for dishonesty as it was for Steve Carell’s Democratic operative for being somewhat effete.
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Stewart has, throughout his career, had a problem with false equivalencies in perceived manias among the left and right, and his style has always depended on a sort of voice-of-God authority in setting the terms of the debate he wants to have. But this felt particularly mistimed. And “Irresistible’s” depiction of small-town America as an idyll that simply wants to be properly heard and understood elided the fact that many Americans in small towns felt heard and understood — deeply — by Donald Trump. The fact that the movie disappeared quickly from view was surely in part due to its timing, released as it was in the pandemic summer of 2020; its talking over and past the concerns the 2016 election actually raised to dwell on seeming pet issues of Stewart’s didn’t help.
The Trump phenomenon was one Stewart had, in leaving his show when he did, sidestepped. Which means that Stewart is in the happy position of having avoided the most painful and thudding types of resistance-adjacent comedy commentary that were thick on the ground in 2017 or so. It also means that Stewart has a high bar to clear when it comes to getting us to pay attention to him now. His engagement with politics has come to feel fair-weather, as if he is only interested in speaking when he can command the audience’s undivided attention. (One senses here the influence of onetime Stewart protégé John Oliver, who manages both to introduce new information to viewers and to engage with the news of the day on its own terms.) On “The Problem,” Stewart, freed from having to broadcast during a time of quite so endless breaking bad news as was the previous era, talks about whatever he wants. But once, speaking to an audience about what was on their minds, not his, was at least part of the brief.
The first episode of the TV show “The Problem” takes on the physical damage done to U.S. military veterans by “burn pits,” a worthy topic clearly close to Stewart’s heart. But in a contentious interview with Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Stewart seemed at times to be casting about to find outrage rather than listening to the answers he was being given and following up. He was appealing to a sense of himself as America’s conscience that has faded away, lost due to disuse. Much of “The Problem” is like that — built, for all that there’s a writers’ room depicted batting around ideas, around Stewart’s sensibility, and, especially, his image. Its humor is halfhearted, barely there: The show relies on Stewart’s standing as a person to whom we inherently and reflexively pay attention.
This no longer feels like the case — as viewership numbers are not available, we must rely on an ambient sense, and “The Problem’s” launch has not been what one might expect from the grand return of a superstar. Perhaps, unlike other kinds of hosts, political satirists depend both on matching the tenor of their times and on staying top-of-mind. Or perhaps attention is earned, and a political comic who took a hiatus through an ongoing political emergency is tapped out.
To this point, before the launch of “The Problem,” Stewart made probably his greatest impact of his current post-”Daily Show” era with a strange June 2021 interview on “The Late Show.” There, he ranted about his belief in the lab-leak theory of the origin of COVID — a diatribe less notable for what was said than for how. Bearded, pounding Stephen Colbert’s desk, cursing, and shouting, Stewart felt like a person trying to construct a Howard Beale moment for himself. Stewart’s self-proclaimed belief in the higher power of engagement and of discernment fell away — he felt, then, more like Rogan than like the theorist of comedy bending over backwards to excuse Rogan. He was, for the length of an interview, just like everyone else in the Trump and post-Trump eras: Relying on volume and brute force to make his point for him. It felt like Stewart’s attempt to catch up to a world that had outpaced him, and that in his absence had left his style behind.