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Review: How do you solve the “problem with Jon Stewart”?

Calling your new public affairs comedy show “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is provocation and preemption. It sounds like the title of a think tank that could have been written at any time over the past two decades, accusing the former “Daily Show” host of bogus equivalence, partisanship or naivety.

Jon Stewart knows it all, the headline says; he even prepared your hack prank for you. You are free to title your review “The Problem with ‘The Problem with Jon Stewart’”, hit “Publish” and call it a day.

That kind of defensive self-mockery can be, well, another problem with Jon Stewart. Even as he reinvented the political and media criticism of Comedy Central’s fake newscast (before “fake news” was renamed), he was prepared to deflect both criticism and praise: We’re just a comedy show. As he told Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004 – a confrontation that only tarnished his reputation as the 21st century Howard Beale – “The show that brings me is puppets making phone jokes. “

With “The Problem” appearing every other Thursday on Apple TV +, that is no longer true, and not just in the literal sense of the fact that on streaming TV there is no introduction. In stature and in the spirit of the new show, he’s now a pie thrower with a goal.

Stewart has joined the ranks of such figures as David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, creating premium programming for streaming television. He is a gray eminence, although he turns his scruffy gray into a punchline. “This is what I look like now,” he tells his audience. “I don’t like it either.”

“The problem” is his attempt to achieve that status and make a serious difference, albeit with a hand over the seltzer spritzer just in case. In its first two episodes, his show is “The Daily Show” but longer (about 45 minutes), more sustained and passionate in his attention, and less funny – often intentionally, sometimes not.

The structure, says Stewart in the first episode, was inspired by a 2010 “Daily Show” in which a panel of 9/11 responders spoke about their lingering health issues and the failure of Congress to approve it. help for them. Stewart has become an on-air and Washington defender of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

“The Problem” associates the satirist Stewart with the lawyer Stewart. There are comedic rants, taped sketches, and the occasional snake joke on the far-right symbol of Gadsden’s flag. But there is also more room for other voices. Each episode focuses on an issue – the health of veterans, gun violence, threats to democracy – and brings together groups of “stakeholders” affected by it.

The in-depth approach is new to Stewart, but not to the world of televised advocacy he joins, shaped in part by “Daily Show” alumni like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj and Wyatt Cenac. (The resemblance to Cenac’s former HBO series “Problem Zones” has not escaped notice to its host, who tweeted a clip of himself saying, “If you want someone to take a black man seriously saying something meaningful on TV, you really have to ask a white man to basically say the same thing right after.”)

Honestly, the biggest added value Jon Stewart brings is Jon Stewart – his fame and his ability to run a spotlight. The panels are the most distinctive part of “The Problem”, drawing on the curiosity and empathy of the host of the later era.

The first episode focuses on veterans whose health insurance claims are denied by the government after being exposed to “fireplaces,” in which troops incinerated toxic waste using jet fuel.

It’s scary to hear vets (to whom, Stewart notes, politicians love to pretend) talk about lung scars and suicide attempts, claiming they feel ignored and willing. “Once you get out they don’t care,” said the retired Army Sgt. Isiah James. An interview with Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, shows a engaged and pressing interrogation style that has taken Stewart years to evolve.

Surprisingly, the comedy is the most shaky part at the start. The first monologue hits pockets of air with wan laughter – maybe the audience didn’t know what to expect, maybe they were shaken by the contrast between the dark subject matter and the punch lines. Either way, he throws the momentum. “I thought you liked me!” Stewart jokes. They clearly do, but the feeling that a crowd is working to enjoy a monologue never makes a great show.

The second episode is more caustically funny but also more scattershot. The subject is “freedom”, which means a tirade, à la vintage “Daily Show”, on anti-vaccinators which prolong the pandemic in the name of freedom, followed by a long panel on the rise of authoritarianism. in the United States and abroad. It’s more of a wide net than a deep dive.

In both episodes, the comedy appears to be working on a parallel track to journalism rather than building with it to a climax, as in Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”. But the satire of the second episode hits harder, including a track in which actress Jenifer Lewis lashes out at protesters who equated mask warrants with slavery: “They plucked cotton. You just have to wear it.

Did I like it better because it was closer to what I was used to in “The Daily Show”? Or because, like all viewers who pump their fists as their favorite late night comic “destroys” someone, I just love to hear someone agree with me acerbically?

Stewart, to his credit, seems uncomfortable preaching to like-minded people, joking at one point that his audience is “a very large selection of Upper West Side Jews.”

There is a recurring self-awareness of the limits of comedy here, which arises during a serious discussion in the Writers’ Room. (These behind-the-scenes segments show a more diverse staff than on the old “Daily Show,” another oft-cited issue with Jon Stewart.) The host waves to a list on the whiteboard and cracks, “This is the problem with hybrid comedy shows The whole time we’re talking about it, I’m just looking: # 1 with an asterisk, “Snake Penis.”

On the other hand: snake penis! It has always been a mistake for people, including critics like me, to treat Stewart’s serious goals and jokes as if they were apart. Good comedy comes from caring enough about something to think about it creatively. “The Daily Show” may not have been about problem solving, but it gave viewers a toolkit, teaching them media literacy, and bringing them the news with incision and analysis.

Of course, that didn’t go any further. Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally for Reason” ahead of the 2010 interim elections heralded a political era that rewards demagoguery and bad faith. (“We won,” he jokes, when a guest refers to the rally on “The Problem.”) Donald Trump’s primary debate.

I can understand the appeal of trying to proactively make a difference, of doing something more than just comedy. But for now – and talk shows need a long break-in period – perhaps the best thing Stewart and “The Problem” can do is fine-tune entertainment specific enough to grab attention. that he wants to redirect.

This too is a contribution. If “The Problem” ever results in a new equivalent of Bill Zadroga, so much the better. But they also serve those who just sit and laugh.

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