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Jon Stewart returns to 'The Daily Show' with his trademark zeal and wit

Monday’s “The Daily Show” opened to roaring applause and a standing ovation from the studio audience as they welcomed back host Jon Stewart, who left the show in 2015 after 16 years at the helm.

“Why am I back, you may be asking yourself, and that’s a reasonable question,” he said with a grin on his face. “I have committed a lot of crimes and from what I understand, talk show hosts are granted immunity.”

Stewart’s high energy matched the anticipation around his return to the Comedy Central show, which was hosted by Trevor Noah up until 2022, when he stepped down. The last year and a half has been anchored by a string of guest hosts, including Kal Penn, Charlamagne tha God, Sarah Silverman and Michelle Wolf.

Now that Stewart’s back, he’ll anchor the show every Monday night, at least until the presidential election in November. The other nights will be populated with a rotating array of “correspondents.”

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But a lot has changed since Stewart left his post, including national levels of political vitriol and the role of the media in making or breaking candidates. Consider that when Stewart was last the host, Bill O’Reilly was the kingpin at Fox and the possibility of Donald Trump in the Oval Office was a joke.

Stewart dove into his opening monologue with the zeal, wit and timing that made him a pioneer of modern, late-night political satire.

In discussing the Super Bowl, he flicked at absurd conspiracy theories about the NFL and Taylor Swift being operatives for the Democratic Party. The game was really a kind of no-win for conservatives who feared the success of a Biden plot if the Kansas City Chiefs won over the San Francisco 49ers, he said. But, “If the Chiefs lost, who wins? The People’s Communist Republic of Gay Pelosistan,” quipped Stewart.

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Appearing earlier Monday on "CBS Mornings," the 61-year-old joked that he was well positioned to cover this election because he’s someone "who truly understands two aging men past their prime.” Stewart appeared in his element Monday night, and admitted as much about his return to “The Daily Show.”

The host’s last endeavor, the Apple TV+ show “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” lasted just two seasons. Stewart told the CBS hosts that he “very much wanted some kind of place to unload thoughts as we get into this election season. I thought I was going to do it over at — they call it Apple TV+ — it’s a television enclave, very small. It’s like living in Malibu. But … they felt that they didn’t want me to say things that might get me in trouble.”

Stewart, who is also executive producer of “The Daily Show,” spent most of his time Monday night doing what he does best: cutting through contentious political discourse with insight and humor, and homing in on the critical issues. His trademark brand of both-sides-ism, while remaining firmly progressive, diminished Bill Maher’s recent efforts to brand his HBO show as the only place where both sides are represented.

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President Biden and former President Trump were the main focus of Stewart’s opening show. He spoke about them next to a graphic that pictured both men looking their age. “Nine months until the election, people, and we already know our candidates. Drumroll please … these f—ing guys,” he said in a deflated tone. Then the new banner for this year’s election flashed on the screen: “Indecision 2024: American DeMOCKracy" and "Electile Dysfunction." Later he changed it to “Indecision 2024: Antiques Roadshow.”

Stewart offered a refreshing perspective on how both Democrats and Republicans have largely avoiding looking at their own candidate’s advanced age, while weaponizing that same factor against the opponent.

“The question then becomes what the f— are we doing here, people?” joked Stewart. “We have two candidates who are chronologically outside the norm of anyone who has run for the presidency in this country in the history of the country. They are the oldest people ever to run for president, breaking by only four years the record that they set the last time they ran.

“What’s crazy is thinking that we're the ones, as voters, who must silence concerns and criticisms. It is the candidate's job to assuage concerns, not the voters' job not to mention them.”

Then graying Stewart asked the camera operator to come in for a close shot of his face: “I didn’t want to have to do this on my first day. Look at me. Look what time hath wrought. Give the kids a treat of the lunar surface here. I’m like 20 years younger than these motherf—. … And if you think 20 years isn’t that long, this is me 20 years ago.”

And up popped a photo of Stewart looking, well, much younger.

“Look, the next nine months or so, and maybe more than that depending on the coup schedule, they’re gonna suck. You’re gonna be getting emails with insane subject lines like, 'Hello Jon, it’s Chuck Schumer. Donald Trump is right behind you with a knife.' You’re gonna be inundated with robocalls," he said, "and push polls, and real polls. … It’s all going to make you feel like Tuesday, Nov. 5, is the only day that matters, and that day does matter, but man, Nov. 6 ain’t nothing to sneeze at, or Nov. 7.

“If your guy loses, bad things might happen, but the country is not over," he continued. "If your guy wins, the country is in no way saved. I’ve learned one thing over these last nine years, and I was glib at best and probably dismissive at worst about this. The work of making this world resemble one you’d prefer to live in is a lunch pail … job, day in and day out, where thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people bang on closed doors and pick up those who have fallen and grind away on issues until they get a positive result, and even then, have to stay on to make sure that result holds. So the good news is I’m not saying you don't have to worry about who wins the election. I’m saying you have to worry about every day before it and every day after it — forever. Although, on the plus side, I’m told that at some point the sun will run out of hydrogen.”

The show also featured an interview with Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor in chief of the Economist, and dispatches from the correspondents on the campaign trail. From outside a diner in Michigan, Dulcé Sloan complained the election was a tired reboot. “They already had this job. Now these old white dudes got to come back and reclaim it? Like c’mon! Go do something new and don’t be so desperate. Let someone else run the show,” she said, clearly referring to Stewart’s return.

Later, Jordan Klepper — who will be hosting the show the rest of the week — appeared behind the desk with Stewart. “Did you save democracy yet?” asked Klepper. “With your ’90s brand of snark and both-sider-isms ... Searing, Jon.”

And with that, Stewart was back.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.