Jon Stewart knows you have questions. Why is his new show called The Problem With Jon Stewart? Does he know it’s a double entendre? And if so, does he know Tim Robinson already told that joke? Anyway, is that what it’s going to be about — problems? What about laughter? Will there be a desk, and news stories, and punchlines and a studio audience to laugh at them?
Second acts are never easy, especially for broadcasters who spent years at the tiller, performing the same ablutions and rituals, over and over. You can hardly blame them for not knowing how to do anything else. Just look at David Letterman. He took a pile of Netflix’s money to come out of retirement and do a slimmed-down show with just himself and a guest, some taped bits featuring himself and the same guest, no band, no comedy writers. At first this spartan approach seemed like a genius move — it's just Dave! Except that Dave’s old show was never just about Dave, as became evident about three shows into the Netflix project.
Contrast that with the opening minutes of The Problem with Jon Stewart, which premieres today on Apple TV+. It starts with a cold open, a fly-on-the-wall video of a production meeting where Jon and his writers are discussing the first show’s topic, something to do with veterans’ health care.
“Are you seeing parallels with the 9/11 first responders…” asks executive producer Brinda Adhikari.
“Absolutely,” says Jon.
“This idea, you said, came from a Daily Show episode you did — the 9/11 one?” says Chelsea Devantez, the show’s head writer. At this point it’s clear this whole scene is staged, because everyone in that room remembers the 9/11 episode. That’s the one where Jon broke with the Daily Show format to convene a panel on the health care needs of 9/11 first responders. Stewart would go on to become a passionate advocate for the first responders, testifying before Congress, meeting with stakeholders and helping get a relief bill finally passed into law.
So the show’s answer to all the fans who’ve been wondering is that The Problem with Jon Stewart will not be just a guy wandering onto a dark stage and yakking for an hour. There will be planning meetings and a topic — a serious topic, a problem. For this first episode, we learn the problem is that thousands of veterans have returned home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan complaining of chronic health conditions, disabling conditions, even fatal illnesses, that are being blamed on the toxic fumes emitted by giant garbage fires at their bases in notorious outdoor incinerators known as “burn pits.” And the purpose of this show is for Stewart to leverage his hefty celebrity power to demand solutions, demand that the military and the federal government do something about the burn pit problem — to move the needle for veterans as he did for 9/11 responders. “How can that not be the show?” Jon asks, rhetorically, for the benefit of the camera in the room.
This is quite an ambitious setup for an hour show (44 minutes, actually), as signaled in AppleTV+’s promotional images, which show a greyer, more serious host, albeit one who hasn’t lost his sense of humor. The opening credits run through a stack of rejected titles for the new show: The Weekly Show, The Monthly Show, Shit Show, The Money Grab With Jon Stewart. But the tonal shift is clear, and indeed the branding for The Problem With Jon Stewart closely resembles that of This Week Tonight With John Oliver, the outrage-of-the-week show on HBO starring Stewart’s protege. And it makes sense. No one expected Stewart — who has talked about the pointlessness of mocking Fox News personalities night in and night out for more than a decade — to simply slide back behind a desk and resume his old shtick. Now the onetime comedian is introduced by Apple PR as an “acclaimed writer, producer, director and advocate.”
Well, yes, and as guy behind a desk. Because after the credits roll, that’s where we see him, in a very Daily Show-like studio, complete with audience (in masks). But the tone is subdued, as if everyone was told ahead of time that the show will be about problems. When Jon tries telling a joke, it falls flat. “I guess that answers whether the show will be funny or not,” he says. But that’s followed with a very Daily Show-like video montage of celebrities on TV declaring how they “love our troops!”, followed by the familiar Daily Show flip: We don’t support our troops when we burn shit next to their tents and then, when they come home, deny them medical treatment. (Yes, the U.S. military literally burned its soldiers’ human waste. The VA has been unwilling to treat these veterans because there’s never been a scientific link established between burn pits and medical symptoms.)
In the next segment, Stewart convenes a panel of veterans who have been advocating for years for the military to ban burn pits. He extracts heart-wrenching details from these veterans, most of whom have been disabled or worse as a result of their service. “Burn pits is our generation's Agent Orange,” declares one stricken veteran. Another, who has a terminal cancer diagnosis, tells Stewart that although it’s “too late for me,” he’ll spend his dying days advocating for change.
And then comes the flex: Stewart is in Washington, in the office of Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to grill him on burn pits. Working with the efficiency of an activist who knows the issue backwards and forwards, Stewart gets McDonough to admit that the reason there is no scientific link between burn pits and chronic health conditions is that the data (which the military controls) is inadequate, that everyone knows why these veterans are sick, and that they need to get health care now. It’s compelling, like a good 60 Minutes interview, as Stewart seems to have caught the secretary talking out of both sides of his mouth.
“By the way,” Stewart adds, “I don’t doubt your empathy, I don’t doubt your character.”
“The beauty is I don’t really give a shit,” McDonough says with a smile. “I don’t really care if you think I’m doing a good job or not, I care what the vets think.” Not for nothing was this guy Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
That’s the first episode, and if it gets some long-overdue progress on the problem of burn pits and the harms they’ve caused, this show will have been worth all those Applebucks. But then I watched the second episode, titled "Freedom." If that sounds like an overly broad and abstract topic for a problem-solving show, well, it is. The whole show is Jon sitting at his big table, yakking seriously with some smart, well-informed observers on democracies around the world who all happen to share his progressive mindset.
I found this gear-shift jarring. The Problem With Jon Stewart is like one of those old network adventure shows that blew the budget filming the pilot in Borneo, then spent the rest of the season on a soundstage in Burbank. But the problem here is material, not money. The pilot suggested that Stewart would be shining a light on a major problem each episode, with a targeted solution that he was in a unique position to address. But how many problems are there actually like that? Judging by the glacially boring second episode, not that many. And in lieu of a vital problem-of-the-week, it appears Stewart will fall back on his old political instincts, just like everyone else in the news-comedy complex.
Could we please move past this? Could all Hollywood types not be in complete lockstep about every single story in the news? (As someone with a more nuanced take on the recent Texas and Georgia voting bills, I find the outrage machine’s response to their passage predictable and exhausting.) That would seem like a topic worthy of a future episode of The Problem With Jon Stewart. But Jon would have to find someone else to host that episode, because he drips with sanctimony toward anyone who doesn’t share his point of view. Which is … a problem.
The Problem With Jon Stewart premieres September 30th on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop twice monthly on Thursdays.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.