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Jon Stewart Hasn't Been Funny Since the Iraq War

To the delight of dozens, Jon Stewart is returning to late-night TV. On January 24, the news broke that the liberal television icon would be coming home to Comedy Central's The Daily Show, the political comedy program where he originally made a name for himself in the early 2000s. The 61-year-old is reportedly set to serve as both an executive producer and a part-time host, scheduled for a once-a-week slot in the anchor's chair, which he no doubt plans to use as a platform to convince his shrinking and aging audience of its own continued relevance.

Stewart is not a stupid man; a part of him must know that he is climbing aboard a sinking ship. But men who have grown accustomed to the limelight are rarely able to recognize when the time has come to ride off into the sunset; the past decade of Stewart's career betrays an obsessive desire to be in front of a camera that is unusual even by the standards of his industry.

Even among left-leaning outlets, Stewart's return was met with apprehension. Ace Rolling Stone notedThe Daily Show cable audience has declined by 75 percent, from 2.2 million to 570,000 viewers a night, while its viewers' median age, which was 48 in the mid-2010s, is now 63.” HAS Business Insider headline was shorter: “Holy crap, look how small and old 'The Daily Show's' audience has gotten.” Time's report on the topic, aptly titled “Jon Stewart's Daily Show Return Is a Bad Omen for Late Night,” mused “that many who tune in will be Stewart loyalists doing so out of nostalgia…. Only a show—or a network, or an entertainment monolith, or a TV format—whose glory days were over would be so eager to revisit them.”

Nostalgia may be all that Stewart has left to offer. Since he left the Daily Show in 2015, the political comedian has been in the wilderness. The year he left his former post at Comedy Central, he signed a four-year deal to produce digital cartoons featuring his voice with HBO; the project was scrapped after two. With two years left on the contract, he announced that he would be doing two stand-up comedy specials—neither of which ever materialized. His foray into directing resulted in 2020's Irresistible, a political comedy that returned less than $500,000 at the box office. In 2021, he premiered The Problem With Jon Stewart on Apple TV+; by the fifth episode, the show's viewership had tanked by 78 percent, pulling in 20 times fewer eyeballs than Late Week Tonight with John Oliver. The show was canceled after two seasons, reportedly due to “creative differences.”

Some of that can be chalked up to age. (In a statement on Stewart's return to the program, Showtime/MTV CEO Chris McCarthy declared that “Jon Stewart is the voice of our generation,” raising the obvious question of precisely which generation McCarthy meant.) Some may simply be attributable to bad luck. (The box office flop of Irresistible was, at least in part, due to the fact that it was released in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic). Yet plenty of aging comedians and television personalities enjoy success and popularity well into their sunset years, even among young audiences, and a substantial number have, no doubt, overcome their fair share of misfortunes.

The more salient reason for Stewart's decline is that he was a man born for—and shaped by—a particular place and time, and that the conditions that enabled his decade of success have long since departed. Stewart's brand of smirking, needling, speaking-truth-to-power liberalism made a certain degree of sense in the Bush era, when there was at least a plausible case that the left was “anti-establishment.” (Or even that there could be such a thing as an “anti-establishment left” at all). His demeanor may not have endeared him to most conservatives, but he was charming to a certain kind of disaffected young liberal who felt alienated from the centers of power governing America at the turn of the century. In today's context, however, Stewart's schtick is worse than boring—it's obnoxious.

When Stewart first rose to prominence on The Daily Show in the early 2000s, the Iraq War was the defining issue of the day. George W. Bush—who actually won the popular vote in 2004—was president. Evangelical social conservatism seemed ascendant, if only for a brief, fleeting moment. The right was still, at least in some senses, the party of the “insiders,” representing the war machine, big business, and corporate power; conservatives still enjoyed enough influence to inflict a form of censorship on their ideological opponents. (Even ostensibly liberal networks like MSNBC felt compelled to silence on-air criticisms of the Iraq War, as was demonstrated in the firing of the well-known host Phil Donahue in 2003).

Stewart's brand, and the audience that flocked to it, represented the kind of youthful liberalism that defined itself in opposition to jingoistic warhawkishness, puritanical moralism, and rapacious corporate corruption. He went after televangelists, regularly running segments with titles such as “God Stuff” and “This Week in God.” He skewered the obvious hubris of the Bush administration's foreign policy and its enablers in the establishment media. He criticized Citizens United, corporate consolidation, and political corruption, and spoke favorably of marijuana legalization and gay rights. He pioneered the now-popular tactic of “nutpicking” by finding and elevating the most ludicrous and uninformed right-wing critics of such measures and mocking them mercilessly.

Today, liberals—particularly the well-to-do suburban progressives who understand the bulk of Stewart's viewer base—are the political force in American life that agitate for military adventurism. (See partisan gaps over Ukraine). Legal marijuana is a multi-trillion dollar industry—the very kind of predatory corporate interest that Stewart once raged against. Big business is almost universally aligned with the left, particularly in the realm of culture; the idea that Nike, Disney, Facebook or any other major corporate behemoth is pushing an insidious right-wing agenda would strike even many progressives as implausible. And anyone who joins the crusade against right-wing Christians is aligning themselves with almost every powerful institution in America, up to and including the FBI.

The premise of Stewart's routine relied on the assumption, more often implied than explicit, that the views he expressed were at odds with those in power. That's what made it fun—he and his audience could convince themselves that they were punching up. Today, however, his worldview and issue set happen to align almost perfectly with the most powerful actors in America. His ideas are recycled versions of the same talking points that Americans hear from their government, their media, their schools and universities, their self-appointed “experts,” the tech platforms they use and the businesses they frequent.

Stewart still probably appeals to a certain kind of educated, upper-middle-class, MSNBC-watching liberal—the kind of progressive suburbanites who still think they're sticking it to the man by attending a Women's March and refusing to take down their I'm With Her bumper stickers. Yet that appeal, as Time noted, is rooted in nostalgia—a desire to cling to a version of liberalism, and of America, that no longer exists.

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