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The Problem With Jon Stewart's biggest problem is that Jon Stewart hasn't changed while the world has

  • On his new Apple TV+ show, Stewart and his colleagues keep referencing his past as host of The Daily Show. "That Stewart keeps invoking The Daily Show, both explicitly and with many of his creative choices, will be a feature rather than a bug to those who missed his sardonic voice while he sat out the Trump years as a public voice," says Alan Sepinwall. "But the problem with Jon Stewart is that he hasn’t changed since we last saw him rocking out to Bruce Springsteen in his Daily Show finale, while the world has — both on television and outside of it. First, there’s the fact that many of his former co-workers now have their own programs covering territory that was once The Daily Show‘s sole domain. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee in particular have spent years perfecting the kind of show The Problem aspires to be: largely devoting each episode to a single issue, with a more serious, at times furious, atmosphere even as the hosts crack jokes. Stewart’s aware that he’s arriving to a flooded marketplace; in another behind-the-scenes segment, he glances at the writers room white board and quips, 'That’s the problem with the comedy-hybrid shows: The whole time we’re talking about this, I’m looking at number one with an asterisk: "snake penis."' And in the early going, he’s struggling to figure out the balance that his old friends have long since mastered. The first episode includes a roundtable of vets who were exposed to burn pits. Their stories — particularly that of one vet who speaks bluntly about how he’s going to die soon and leave his son to grow up without a father — are raw and powerful, but they also leave Stewart palpably adrift in his attempt to mix in even gentle humor. As the roundtable gets darker and darker, he feels the need to remark on the lengthy silence of the studio audience, noting, 'I think people are stunned!' (Though even earlier, when he’s doing self-deprecating jokes about how much he’s aged since the mid-2010s, he can’t help commenting on the crowd’s muted response, asking, 'I thought you people liked me?')" Sepinwall adds: "Stewart is fond of joking about how much time has passed not only with regard to his appearance but in terms of how people consume TV. At the end of the premiere, he thanks the audience for watching, then acknowledges that few people will actually watch the show on Apple TV+ versus those who look at aggregated clips online. With its more serious tone and long-planned, single-topic focus, The Problem feels like Stewart’s attempt to evolve what he used to do for a new era. He just hasn’t figured out how to do it yet, and may be too entrenched in his old approach to succeed for anyone beyond the most die-hard Daily Show With Jon Stewart fans."


    • Jon Stewart has been hard to miss because his success has made him obsolete: "On his Netflix talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, (David) Letterman uses his hour-long run time for in-depth interviews with famous people, sometimes yielding the kind of honest discussions he could only get as a fellow famous person," says Inkoo Kang. "(Conan) O’Brien, who spent three decades retooling his shows to figure out what worked and what didn’t, decided only making more travelogues for his HBO Max show, to debut next year, would make him happiest. (Jay Leno’s Garage currently airs on CNBC, but it began as a web series, and it, too, is a passion project for the former Tonight Show host.) As the most influential late-night figure of the past decade and a half, Stewart faces a unique challenge: the countless imitators and former proteges who do exactly what he did, often with more refreshing perspectives (as with Amber Ruffin, the duo of Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, or Stewart’s Daily Show successor Trevor Noah). The format Stewart popularized has now reached its undisputed apotheosis with John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, while the infotainment and political commentary ecospheres have expanded beyond television to YouTube and social media. Turns out, anyone can point out hypocrisy. So what’s Stewart left with? With even his signature phrase 'fake news' (the term he used to describe his irreverent takes on the day’s events) appropriated from him, the comedian is opting for what might be called 'slow news': a 40- to 60-minute biweekly show dedicated to a single topic. If Last Week Tonight is a newsmagazine, with a main 'cover story' and a variety of smaller segments dedicated to shorter 'columns' and 'articles, The Problem With Jon Stewart  is closer to a book. Sound snoozy? You got the right idea."
    • The Problem feels more like The Daily Show than not: "In its initial outing, not a whole lot of The Problem feels particularly surprising or brand new," says Caroline Framke. "Its most immediately compelling aspect, then, is the restless undercurrent thrumming throughout. Whereas The Daily Show used Stewart’s prickly dissatisfaction as a comedic engine, his new show spotlights it with a more focused determination. It’s almost as he left the 'Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear)' he threw years ago with Colbert and realized that such a restoration might require more than pointing out the obvious fact of a world gone mad. Even when The Problem indulges that impulse, its best moments come from pushing past its first “what the f*ck?!” instinct to the bigger, thornier question of, 'what now?'"
    • The Problem may seem familiar, but Stewart is able to make it distinctive: "Just because Problem resembles much of what other comedians including (John) Oliver, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee are doing in the late-night talk show space doesn't mean that it has nothing to add to the conversation," says Kelly Lawler. "Stewart, 58, is a charismatic, convincing guy. He stands out as an advocate for the people whose stories he elevates on his platform, much like he has spent many years fighting on behalf of 9/11 first responders who have struggled to get medical care. Part news show, part comedy, part soap box, Problem is familiar but distinct, and a natural outlet for this version of Stewart...Stewart has been promoting the series by trying to manage expectations about just how funny it will be: not that hilarious. But there is more humor than his pre-show press might indicate, especially when Stewart is directly addressing the audience. He is still Jon Stewart, after all, and he knows how to turn a joke in a monologue without risking exploiting or offending his subjects. When he shifts to his role as interviewer, the jokes are fewer, and by the second episode, about democracy in danger in the U.S. and around the globe, he is more adept at keeping the panels serious while evoking some chortles."
    • The Problem needs to try harder to distinguish itself from Stewart's former correspondents: "Six years after Stewart forfeited his throne as the king of late-night political satire, several of his former correspondents have gone off and created similar programs that are doing all the things The Problem aims to do, but better — and with tighter editing, at least judging by Thursday’s debut," says Ryan Schwartz. "With its single-issue format, the show itself is perhaps most like HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, only with less jokes to help bring levity to an otherwise dense subject matter. (Neither a satirical how-to video teaching viewers at home how to create their own personal burn pits, nor a faux PBS promo featuring award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, were especially funny.)...All told, The Problem feels like a work in progress — a promising work, for sure, but one that will need to try that much harder to distinguish itself from the very shows Stewart inspired his former Comedy Central cohorts to create."
    • The Problem is akin to when a comedian transitions to more dramatic acting roles: "The most obvious problem with The Problem is its emphasis on righting and exposing wrongs comes at the expense of being entertaining, at least in the way people have come to expect," says Brian Lowry. "The overall effect brings to mind the historic resistance when a comedic actor segues into dramatic roles, and the pushback from parts of the audience figures to be similar. Stewart has anticipated that potential criticism and seems content to plead guilty to it. Having spent years eliciting laughs, in The Problem Stewart has different priorities, embarking, however lofty it might sound, on a search for solutions."
    • The Problem is like a 60 Minutes segment mixed with a late-night talk show: "If it all sounds a bit like a grad school lecture delivered by the hippest and funniest prof on campus," says Richard Roeper, "well, that’s kind of what we’re getting, and it’s vintage Jon Stewart: thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, clever, occasionally a bit too pleased with itself but on balance, pretty flippin’ great, only they don’t say 'flippin’' on this show cause you can swear on Apple TV+. The Problem With Jon Stewart plays like a particularly compelling segment on 60 Minutes crossed with a late-night comedy talk show. In Episode One, titled 'War,' Stewart shines a harsh spotlight on the military’s use of Burn Pits, i.e., the common practice in Iraq and Afghanistan of digging huge holes next to bases and burning chemical drums, vehicles, medical waste, food waste, amputated body parts, tires, tarps, batteries and mountains of human waste. Pour on the jet fuel, light it up — and toxic, black plumes of smoke would be inhaled by the soldiers on the bases...Heavy stuff — but Stewart has the uncanny ability to combine crusading journalism and social outrage with, for example, a hilarious swipe at YouTube star Jake Paul."
    • The Problem is a bit hit and miss: Critics were "sent two episodes that seem to represent two completely different visions of the show, one that feels like a specific and refined addition to the comedy-news hybrid landscape, and one that feels like an uninspired (but not wholly unfunny) rehash of the longer-form, issue-specific shows that Stewart’s heirs pioneered in carving out their own spaces," says Daniel Fienberg. "The first episode, titled 'War,' has a clean and presumably reusable three-act structure...The episode is peppered with Stewart’s insecurities about his TV return and the purpose of his new show. Its humor is driven by gags about Apple TV+’s brand identity, the fact that he’s aged a little since MTV’s You Wrote It, You Watch It, and jokes about the episode’s lack of jokes. More than comedy, it’s driven by Stewart’s personal passion. He’s invested in every question and every conversation, and the whole thing has purpose. Even if it isn’t tied to a single real-world news peg, it’s completely timely. The second episode, titled “Freedom,” is an episode of The Daily Show, or rather an episode of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, stretched to 44 minutes. In this episode, Stewart begins with a rant about claims that COVID protocols represent a sacrifice of freedoms, targeting right-wing talking points, especially comparisons between mask-wearing or vaccine mandates and Nazi Germany. It’s a Daily Show monologue right down to Stewart’s uncoiled exasperation and various beloved mannerisms. That’s followed by an extended, two-part panel conversation with three international guests determined to illustrate how actual authoritarian regimes behave and why we’re not that. It’s less specific, less timely and unnervingly smug, especially given that the total number of viewers of a new Jon Stewart show likely to have compared vaccine passports to Hitler is close to zero...It’ll be interesting to see which way subsequent episodes lean. Jon Stewart’s voice may not necessarily be essential to today’s TV landscape, but these episodes, hit-and-miss though they are, show how he might absolutely have value to add."
    • It’s interesting how far away from his Daily Show this new series is: "Stewart has ditched the suits and celebrities that came with the talk show facade," says Jason Tabrys. "The set is homey instead of slick. At the moment, it seems that correspondents have been tossed in favor of intimate roundtable micro-chats between Stewart and his diverse staff. Clips play a role, but more as a sort of opening statement. The Daily Show wasn’t inauthentic, but this is somehow more authentic. Something that may be a result of it feeling less concerned with those efforts to be a comedy show while leading with humanity, empathy, and nuance. Which, I suppose, we can attribute to the power of being Jon Stewart and being able to worry exclusively about being good and doing the show you want and not so much about pulling viral moments or adapting to network notes."
    • The Problem teams up the satirist Stewart with the advocate Stewart: "There are comic rants, taped sketches and the occasional off-color joke about the snake on the far-right symbol the Gadsden flag," says James Poniewozik. "But there’s also more room for other voices. Each episode centers on one issue — veterans’ health, gun violence, threats to democracy — and brings on panels of 'stakeholders' affected by it. The deep-dive approach is new for Stewart but not for the world of TV advocomedy he’s rejoining, shaped in part by Daily Show alums like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj and Wyatt Cenac. (The resemblance to Cenac’s former HBO series Problem Areas was not lost on its host, who tweeted a clip of himself saying, 'If you want somebody to take a Black guy saying something meaningful on TV seriously, you really need to have a white guy say basically the same thing right after.') The biggest value-add Jon Stewart brings, honestly, is Jon Stewart — his fame and ability to direct a spotlight. The panels are the most distinctive part of The Problem, drawing on the host’s later-era curiosity and empathy."
    • The Problem with Jon Stewart violates one of the primary rules of television: Don't choose a title that makes it easy for critics to criticize: "As in, The Problem With Jon Stewart is that it's too much like The Daily Show. Or The Problem With Jon Stewart is that its host lectures the audience too much," says Eric Deggans. "Or this killer: The Problem with Jon Stewart is that it isn't funny enough. In truth, The Problem With Jon Stewart hits a groove in its second episode, which minimizes some of the issues I poked fun at in the earlier paragraph. And the show's focus on important subjects, explored with passion and compassion, makes for compelling viewing. Still, much in the first two installments — Apple TV+ gave critics an early look at those episodes — feels like a stitched-together pastiche of items from Stewart's old show and a few other programs he inspired." Deggans adds: "The show's first episode is also a bit awkward because of its gravity. Stewart explores health problems many military veterans believe resulted from exposure to toxins released when garbage and waste were burned at or near military bases where they served overseas...It's a subject that's tough to joke about, but one that Stewart has pushed to resolve for years as an activist...It's a subject that's tough to joke about, but one that Stewart has pushed to resolve for years as an activist."
    • The Problem needs to be shaken up because it clashes against the Ghost of Stewart Past: "The very fact that The Problem With Jon Stewart exists is evidence that you've attained that status," says Melanie McFarland, addressing Stewart directly. "Throw in the respect you've earned as a First Responders advocate and all those old credits in the trust bank from back in the day when Gen Xers and millennials were supposedly getting their news from you, and guess what? You've more than earned your right to do serious interviews that aren't rolled in sugar. David Letterman showed the way with his Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction which, in its first season, uses celebrity guests as Trojan horses to enter discussions of larger social and political issues."
    • Stewart struggles to find comedy in deadly serious topics: "What made Stewart such a sensation on The Daily Show was his unique ability to mine hard laughs out of increasingly dark news cycles," says Matt Wilstein. "Now that his many disciples are doing their own versions of that trick across network, cable and streaming TV, the bar has been raised and you can feel Stewart straining to reach over it in these first couple of episodes. In a 2008 interview, Tina Fey was asked if she prefers applause or laughter. 'Laughter. You can prompt applause with a sign,' she replied. Noting that her friend Seth Meyers coined the term 'clapter,' which is 'when you do a political joke and people go, "Woo-hoo,"' she added, 'It means they sort of approve but didn’t really like it that much. You hear a lot of that on (whispers) The Daily Show. Watching The Problem With Jon Stewart, you get the impression that Stewart took that criticism to heart, but perhaps learned the wrong lesson. He’s no longer going for applause lines, but he’s too often leaving the humor out altogether. There are a handful of moments when he reminds us of his O.G. status in the genre he more or less created. If he can stay both relevant and—just as importantly—funny, he just might have a must-watch show on his hands again."
    • The Problem With Jon Stewart is ultimately more advocacy than activism, and while that’s consistent with Stewart’s past work, it lacks bite: "Our current political climate is so absurd that even actual news anchors, such as MSNBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, frequently have satirical segments where they perform more like Stewart than the stiff, buttoned-up Walter Cronkite wannabes parodied on 'Weekend Update' and the original Daily Show with Craig Kilborn," says Stephen Robinson. "They exist in a post-Stewart reality. The challenge for Stewart is whether he can truly thrive in the world he’s created."
    • The Problem is strange -- and possibly special -- because Stewart is ditching humor: "Comedians are supposed to be funny, and usually that requires them to be the center of attention," says Jeva Lange. "Yet Stewart is neither of these things in The Problem, and he seems acutely aware of disappointing viewer expectations with this choice. The next time he goes to the Comedy Cellar, he quips at the end of episode one, "they're all going to be like, 'Oh look, Mother Teresa just came.'" It's clear he's trying to strike a difficult balance of using his fame for good without making bigger issues about himself. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. On The Daily Show, Stewart's humor was an effective tool to lure in viewers, then tell them something important. By stripping away the expectation of humor from The Problem's start, Stewart may have abandoned his most tempting bait. Or he may be prepared to work without it. Stewart isn't naïve; he knows most people will consume The Problem in clips on YouTube rather than stream the entire show (much less stream it on Apple TV+, which this summer claimed to have fewer than 20 million subscribers). That's part of what makes The Problem strange — and quite possibly very special: By Stewart's own admission, it's 'less entertaining' than we might expect from him, but in the absence of distractions, also 'more complete.'"
    • The Problem With Jon Stewart has an identity crisis: "Unsure of its place in a vast news world and reluctant to lean into its host’s established strengths, the early problem with The Problem is that it doesn’t know what it is yet, even after Stewart’s six-year departure from desk duty," says Ben Travers. "Judging the long-term quality, let alone the lasting impact, of any news show (or new show, for that matter) based on its first two episodes is damn near impossible. Typically, it’s easier to gauge potential, since usually you’re dealing with a personality, format, or idea that’s still introducing itself. But when it comes to The Problem With Jon Stewart, we know the potential; the potential is why people are already paying attention, because that potential was already realized on The Daily Show. Stewart’s timing, insight, and dogged pursuit of clarity in an increasingly opaque world connected with audiences who wanted a news host to entertain them as much as they wanted one who would cut through the bullshit. People didn’t want to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle; they wanted to know what they needed to know, without having to work to find it, and without it ever feeling like work when they did." Travers adds: "The Problem With Jon Stewart admirably tries to widen the focus beyond its host; from including the writers’ voices to elevating guest interviews over anchor segments, the new show wants its stories and subjects in the spotlight more than anything. But until the series figures out how to distinguish itself beyond the rest of TV in order to better serve those 'problems,' it won’t achieve the impact it desires — or anything close to what Stewart found before."
    • The Problem is uneven but full of potential: "Stewart is a polarizing figure, and one whose cranky, sarcastic grandstanding worked much better with his original, Gen X audience than it does today," says Judy Berman. "But, at its best, The Problem isn’t just about self-righteous yelling; like many of Stewart’s post-Daily Show projects, it’s about using his fame to effect change, or at least raise the level of mainstream political discourse. It has a long way to go to achieve that objective. More episodes like 'War' and fewer like 'Freedom' would be a good start."
    • Why ABC News and CBS News veteran Brinda Adhikari signed on as The Problem's showrunner: "It all happened very much by chance," says Adhikari. "I was at CBS at the time and I got word that there was a current affairs show that Jon Stewart was going to be starting up and, like so many, I was a huge fan of his. At the time, I was interested in seeing what some next steps for me could be but I never thought of anything other than traditional news because, quite honestly, news is very much its own universe and you don’t think there’s anything else outside of it. You just keep going and talking to the same people about the same opportunities. But I got word that they were interested in looking beyond just comedy, that they were looking at all different kinds of people with all different kinds of experiences, and so my name got thrown in the ring. And then I talked to Jon a couple of times, and we had some really, really good discussions and we laughed a lot, and before you know it, I’m the showrunner."
    • Jon Stewart says he's cognizant of the limitations facing a program like The Problem: “Your purpose can’t be efficacy,” he says. “Your purpose has to be, what’s the best iteration of this idea? How do we best execute our intention? That’s the whole purpose of making things.” Stewart adds of potential criticism: “Are you worried when you show it to someone they’ll say it sucks? Yeah, that’d be a drag. But I like making things, and I would still like you to put it on your refrigerator.” Is advocacy a central component of The Problem? "Maybe not advocacy as much as amplification," he says. "That seems like a worthwhile use of the privilege of television. I’ve always viewed it as a uniquely, oddly arrogant privilege. Like all comics, who walk into a club, where all the seats are facing one way and there’s one seat in front of everyone, and you think to yourself, I’ll take that one — I’ve got some thoughts on airplanes that I’d like these other people to hear. Now you feel like, well, if you’ve earned some capital in all of this, why not spend it on people better than you, who are doing remarkable things? You can help frame their good work."

    TOPICS: The Problem With Jon Stewart, Apple TV+, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Brinda Adhikari, Jon Stewart