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Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' return is so smooth, it's like he never left

Jon Stewart returned Monday as host of <em>The Daily Show</em>.
Matt Wilson
Comedy Central
Jon Stewart returned Monday as host of The Daily Show.

After watching Jon Stewart's triumphant return to The Daily Show on Monday night, I had two thoughts.

The GOAT of late night satire is back. And even some of the show's biggest fans may not be all that happy to see him return.

That's because, in his first episode returning as host — nearly nine years after he originally left — Stewart took on a subject that even his most liberal fans might find touchy: the idea that concerns about how age may have affected President Biden aren't necessarily overblown.

He didn't mince words about the erratic behavior of Biden's likely opponent for the presidency, Donald Trump, either — showing how the former president couldn't remember basic things during court depositions like how long he was married to Marla Maples or whether he had bragged about how great his memory was. ("It turns out, the leading cause of early onset dementia is being deposed," Stewart cracked, after showing a montage of Trump's grown children having similar recall issues.)

But even though some liberals may be sensitive to the idea that comparing Biden's gaffes with Trump's behavior is an unfair "both sides" balancing act, Stewart insisted supporters should do a better job showing the current president is vital and effective as they say he is.

"It's the candidate's job to assuage concerns," Stewart said in a 20-minute segment that kicked off last night's program. "Not the voter's job not to mention them."

Easily slipping back into the host chair

From the show's opening moments, Stewart eased back into the host's chair without missing a beat, firing off jokes with a familiar style that felt like he had left just a few weeks ago, rather than in 2015. He brought a confidence the program sorely needs; it's been searching for a permanent host for more than a year since the departure of Trevor Noah, who succeeded Stewart as host.

Stewart returns in a unique arrangement, hosting The Daily Show on Monday nights and serving as an executive producer for all evenings — similar to an arrangement crafted by another cable TV star, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. The new setup allows him to avoid the grind of daily hosting, ceding the rest of the week to the show's correspondents, starting with Jordan Klepper, who hosts Tuesday through Thursday.

Even as he eased into familiar rhythms — poking fun at idea that he's an old guy returning to his old job, highlighting concerns about two other old guys competing to get their old job back — Stewart faced a new challenge: reminding everyone why he was such a venerated host in the first place.

In his first 16 years hosting The Daily Show, Stewart elevated the program into an incisive look at the hypocrisies of media, politics and society. Along the way, he helped birth a style of fact-based satire that has exploded all over television, from the work by Daily Show alums John Oliver on HBO's Last Week Tonight and Stephen Colbert on CBS' The Late Show to the sharper political tone of Late Night with Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

But the media environment Stewart has returned to is quite different. Ratings in late night have declined, and the young audiences that once fueled the genre have moved on to TikTok and YouTube. With luck, Stewart's appeal to The Daily Show's old school fans will bring better ratings on the cable channel, but it's still likely to be a smaller crowd than he once commanded.

Regardless, last night's program shows Stewart's still got the comedy chops and incisive ideas to power the show at least through the presidential election in November. He has said in interviews that part of the appeal in returning was to have a place to "unload thoughts" as the election season progresses.

Last night's debut proved Stewart will bring that and more, buying time for an influential show at a crossroads to figure out a new future for itself at least one more time.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.