Review: How Do You Solve ‘The Problem With Jon Stewart’?
Calling your new public-actions-comedy show “The Problem with Jon Stewart” is an excitement and a pre-enthusiast. It sounds like the title of a think-piece that could have been written at some point in the past two decades, accusing the one-time “Daily Show” host of false similarity, or favoritism, or naivete.
Jon Stewart knows it all, the title says; He’s even teased your hack joke for you. You’re free to title your review “The Problem With Jon Stewart”, hit “Publish” and call it a day.
This kind of defensive self-deprecation may be another problem with Jon Stewart. Even as he was rekindling political and media criticism over Comedy Central’s fake newscasts (before being re-branded “fake news”), he had both criticism and praise. The ready inclination was: we are just a comedy show. As he told Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004—a confrontation that only burned his reputation as the Howard Beale of the 21st century—”The show that moves me is the puppet who makes prank phone calls. has been.”
With “The Problem” airing every other Thursday on Apple TV+, that’s no longer true, and not just in the literal sense that there are no lead-ins on TV streaming. In stature and in the spirit of the new show, he is now a pie thrower with a purpose.
Stewart joins the ranks of individuals like David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama who are creating high-minded programming for streaming TV. He’s an iconic grise, though he makes his raucous gris-ness the punchline. “This is what I look like now,” he tells his audience. “I do not like it either.”
“Problem” is his attempt to step up to that position and make a serious difference, even if a hand on a seltzer spritzer just in case. In its first two episodes, his show is “The Daily Show”, but longer (about 45 minutes), more sustained in its focus and passionate and less witty – often deliberate, sometimes not.
The structure, Stewart said in the first episode, was inspired by the 2010 “Daily Show” in which a panel of 9/11 respondents spoke about their health problems and Congress’ failure to approve help for them. Stewart James Zadroga became an attorney for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, on air and in Washington.
“The Problem” linked satirist Stewart with Advocate Stewart. There are comic rants, taped sketches, and the occasional off-color joke about the snake on the symbol at the far-right of the Gadsden flag. But there is more room for other voices. Each episode focuses on one issue—the health of veterans, gun violence, threats to democracy—and brings to the fore panels of “stakeholders” affected by it.
The deep-dive approach is new for Stewart, but not for the world of TV advomedy he’s rejoining, shaped by “Daily Show” alums like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, and Wyatt Senek. (Sinack’s resemblance to the former HBO series “Problem Areas” was not lost on its host, which tweeted A clip of herself saying, “If you want someone to take a black person seriously enough to say a meaningful thing on TV, you really need to say basically the same thing to a white person.” )
Jon Stewart The biggest value-add Jon Stewart brings is, honestly, Jon Stewart — his fame and ability to direct the spotlight. The panels are the most typical part of “The Problem”, which draws on the host’s curiosity and empathy for a later era.
The first episode focuses on veterans whose health-coverage claims are being denied by the government after being exposed to “burn pits”, in which soldiers burn toxic waste using jet fuel.
It hurts to hear vets (whom, Stewart notes, politicians like to pay lip service to) when it comes to lung scars and suicide attempts, saying they feel ignored and disposed. “Once you’re out, they don’t care,” says the retired Army Sgt. Isiah James. An interview with Veterans Affairs Secretary Dennis McDonough reflects a hectic, pressurized inquiry style that took Stewart years to develop.
Surprisingly, the comedy is the weakest part in the beginning. The first monologue hits air pockets of Van laughter—perhaps the audience was unsure what to expect, perhaps bewildered by the contrast between the serious subject matter and the punch lines. Either way, it turns off the momentum. “I thought you guys liked me!” Stewart jokes. They obviously do, but the feeling that the crowd is working to enjoy a monologue never makes for a great show.
The second episode is more fun, but also more scary. The theme is “Freedom”, which means a scathing, a la vintage “Daily Show”, on anti-vaccination who are prolonging the pandemic in the name of freedom, followed by a lengthy take on the rise of authoritarianism in the United States. Panel and abroad. This is a wider net than a deep dive.
In both episodes, comedy is working on a parallel track with journalism, not Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” But the satire hits hard in the second episode, in which actress Jennifer Lewis lambasts protesters who likened the masked mandate to slavery: “They picked up the cotton. You just have to wear it.”
Did I like it better because it was closer to what I was used to from “The Daily Show”? Or because, like all viewers fist-pumping as their favorite late-night comic “destroys” someone, I love to hear someone agree with me?
Stewart, to his credit, seems uncomfortable preaching to like-minded people, joking at one point that his audience is “a very broad-based selection of Upper West Side Jews”.
There is a recurring self-consciousness here about the limits of comedy, which comes to the fore during a serious discussion in the writers’ room. (These behind-the-scenes segments show a more diverse staff than the old “Daily Show,” another frequently cited problem with Jon Stewart.) The host points to a list on the whiteboard and cracks: “This The problem is comedy hybrid shows. The whole time we’re talking about this, I’m just watching: No. 1 with an asterisk, ‘Snake Ling.'”
On the other hand: Snake Ling! It’s always been a mistake for critics like me to take Stewart’s serious motives and her jokes apart. Good comedy comes from caring enough about something to think creatively about it. “The Daily Show” may not have set out to fix the problems, but it gave viewers a toolbox, taught them media literacy, and brought them news with incision and analysis.
Of course, he only went so far. Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally for Sanity” before the mid-2010s heralded an era of politics that rewarded democracy and bad faith. (“We won,” he quips, when a guest makes reference to the rally on “Problem.”) His last “Daily Show,” which included urging viewers to see through bluster and lies, was on the same night. was broadcast as the first President. Donald Trump’s primary debate.
I can understand the vibe of constantly trying to make a difference, to do more than just comedy. But for now — and talk shows require a long breaking-in period — probably the best thing Stewart and “The Problem” can do is to refine an entertainment enough to attract attention that it deserves. wants to redirect.
This is also a contribution. If someday that “problem” results in a new equivalent of Zadroga Bill, great. But they also serve those who simply sit and joke.
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