For diehard Jon Stewart fans, this presidential election has been doubly painful. The country is drowning in political rancor and absurdity, and our comic healer, our Chief Justice of Sarcasm, is down on the farm? Rome burns, and American voters burn, too, while Stewart, who left “The Daily Show” last August, has been creating an animal sanctuary in New Jersey with his wife and making brief personal appearances, including this week at the 75th birthday party for the USO.
But hold on, desperate devotees. In an interview on Thursday with CNN, HBO chief Richard Plepler said he is “hopeful” he will have Stewart back in the fray before the November election. “I think he’s clamoring at the bit,” Plepler said of Stewart, “to do something that he knows is going to stand out and be a new part of his artistic expression.” Three months after leaving Comedy Central, Stewart signed a four-year deal with HBO that, in its initial phase, has him producing digital content.
The hunger for Stewart’s return isn’t only because of the obvious — that the comic has been MIA while comedy’s uber-target Donald Trump has become the probable Republican nominee. It’s also because Stewart — a media critic as much as a political satirist — hasn’t been on TV drawing ethical lines while much of the media have succumbed to the Trump spectacle. And he hasn’t been tossing out punch lines while the Democrats are undergoing very bumpy sailing indeed, as the tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — and their supporters — grows increasingly turbulent.
What would Stewart have to say about “Bernie bros,” many of whom filled his “Daily Show” audience? Inquiring Stewart fans want to know.
Stewart’s absence has been particularly evident at this curious juncture in American history because none of TV’s news comics has managed to quite fill the gap. Trevor Noah, Stewart’s “Daily Show” replacement, has been going after the candidates every night, but without the insight and righteous fury that Stewart fans love. The Nielsen ratings for what once was a buzzy cultural hub have dropped, while the telegenic Noah continues to try to find his voice.
Larry Wilmore, who occupies the post-Noah slot with “The Nightly Show,” has also failed to build excitement, and that won’t get easier after his underwhelming routine at last week’s White House Correspondents Dinner. Low-key and wry, Wilmore is a voice of reason at a time when Stewart’s big gestures might be more of what the doctor ordered in an era of populist discontent. Wilmore may yet have his moment, but so far, like Noah, he hasn’t created momentum by using viral content to draw newcomers to his show.
Jon Oliver, also on HBO, makes must-see TV as he dives deep into world issues. But his weekly “Last Week Tonight” typically doesn’t focus on the election and our daily political life, even though his “Donald Drumpf” segment from February currently has more than 25 million views on YouTube. And only a few months into her TBS show “Full Frontal,” Samantha Bee — like Oliver, a former “Daily Show” correspondent — calls out the candidates with passion and intelligence. But both shows are weekly, which means a lot of the juiciest material is either overlooked or done too late.
A few of the nightly network late-show hosts do their part to address the news, but none has been able to fully rise above the frivolities of the late-night formula. Their jokes tend to be obscured by the silly interviews and the overall harmless atmosphere, designed to help viewers relax and fall asleep. On “Late Night,” Seth Meyers has managed to revive a bit of the spirit of the “Weekend Update” segment from his “Saturday Night Live” days. And Stephen Colbert has included a few amusing political segments and interviews on “The Late Show.” But CBS and Colbert recently hired a new showrunner in order to strengthen the series’ identity and improve ratings, a sign that Colbert’s transition from ironic clown to versatile entertainer has not gone smoothly. The likable, fangless Jimmy Fallon is the current king of late-night with his “Tonight Show.”
Stewart’s deal with HBO includes short-form video projects — a cagey name for what, it seems, are going to be clever viral videos. “My hunch is it will evolve over time,” Plepler said of what Stewart will do for the pay cable channel and its streaming service HBO Now. “It will iterate over time.” To be seen is whether Stewart will be able to effectively unleash his fury in small chunks, instead of in the longer-form style of the nightly “The Daily Show.”
Stewart fans are still hankering for his particular brand of witty analysis, his not-so-velvet hammer.