NEW YORK (AP) — No, Jon Stewart really wasn't sitting at his desk at Comedy Central for the last nine years, waiting for someone to turn the lights back on.
Yet it almost felt that way during Stewart's return to “The Daily Show” Monday night. His signature moves — blunt satire, facial grimaces, incisive use of video and some occasional lectures — were all intact. Public figures are served notice that the media's sharpest bull detector is back on the job.
Stewart has said that the lack of a comedic outlet for his observations as the presidential campaign unfolded largely drove his decision to reprise his most memorable role, one night a week through the election. The much-diminished Comedy Central, unable to find a successor to Trevor Noah as host, happily welcomed him back.
Questions about the future of late-night TV, which is rapidly shedding viewers and losing influence, won't be answered in one night. Neither will that night prove Stewart can regain the position of prominence he stepped away from in August 2015.
But it was a promising start.
“Are you disappointed yet?” Stewart said after one sophomoric joke, about naming “The Daily Show” election coverage, “Indecision 2024: Electile Dysfunction.”
HE DOVE DIRECTLY INTO THE NEWS OF THE DAY
Stewart seemed to take a page from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow when she turned a daily hosting role into a weekly one. Both resisted trying to do too much, to cram a week's — or in Stewart's case, nine years — worth of material into one show. He moved swiftly into the news, and up-to-date doings of President Joe Biden and his Republican rival.
In Biden's case, it meant directly addressing questions about his age and fitness for office, which the president's supporters surely want to avoid. He examined Biden's news conference last week meant to counter characterizations in special counsel Robert Hur's report on classified documents found in Biden's home.
“Joe Biden had a big press conference to dispel the notion that he may have lost a step and, politically speaking, lost three or four steps,” he said.
He said about Biden aides who thought it was a good idea for him to turn down a Super Bowl interview in favor of a TikTok appearance: “Fire everyone.”
Stewart showed tape of administration officials like Vice President Kamala Harris and other Democrats testifying to Biden's sharpness and suggested it might be a good idea to film the president in those meetings so the public can see him.
Yet Stewart also used tightly-edited videotape of Donald Trump and his family during depositions saying they couldn't recall things to counter the notion that Biden is alone in showing memory issues during such high-pressure legal proceedings. “The Daily Show” even found one where Trump said he couldn't remember talking about how good his memory is.
His main point: Worries about whether either the 81-year-old Biden or 77-year-old Trump are up to the toughest job in the world shouldn't be swept under the rug.
“It is the candidates' job to assuage concerns, not the voters' job not to mention them,” Stewart said.
HE WAS PRETTY WELL-RECEIVED BY CRITICS
Based on one night, a handful of critics noted Stewart's seamless transition.
“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,” Deggans wrote. “He brought a confidence the show sorely needs.”
Jeremy Egner of The New York Times wrote that “Stewart's first night found him grayer — at one point he used his own wizened face as a prop in a joke about the presidential candidates' ages. But he was otherwise in classic form.”
The show was seen by 930,000 people on Comedy Central, and viewership jumped to 1.85 million when a later repeat and simulcasts with other Paramount-owned networks like MTV and Paramount are included, the Nielsen company said. It was the most-watched episode of “The Daily Show” since 2018, and more than double what Trevor Noah averaged in 2022.
The comparison of Stewart returning to “The Daily Show” and two candidates likely staging a rematch was too obvious to let go by. Correspondent Dulce Sloan, ostensibly talking about discouraged voters, said they needed someone new, more than just “old white dudes” coming back to reclaim a job.
“We're talking about the election, right?” Stewart said.
The “campaign” interlude allowed Stewart, and viewers who had drifted away from “The Daily Show” after he left, to become acquainted with unfamiliar cast members. An on-set interview with Jordan Klepper, who will host the show for the rest of the week, was less successful.
During his time away, Stewart spent time as an activist fighting to get benefits for Sept. 11, 2001, responders and two years hosting “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on the Apple TV+ streaming service. He made a subtle allusion to the latter on Monday, saying he would be making jokes about China and AI, subjects that reportedly made Apple uncomfortable before axing the show.
David Bauder covers media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder