Guide # 9: The Problem With The Problem With Jon Stewart | Jon stewart
Chances are, you haven’t caught, or even heard of, the problem with Jon Stewart. Available on Apple TV +, the new (ish) humorous news series from former Daily Show frontman Stewart seems – at least due to the lack of buzz on social media * – to fall victim to this particular phenomenon of the age of streaming where a media company throws huge sums of money at talented people to complete projects that are then buried in the midst of a multitude of equally expensive projects made by such talented people. (See also: Pretty much every TV series and movie made in recent years by Amazon.)
I have watched The Problem with Jon Stewart, mostly out of a nostalgic desire to relive the glory days of the Stewart-era Daily Show, clips of which I devoured online as a student, speechless at the stupidity and brutality of America of the Bush era. Clever, goofy, funny, and with a note of Gen X contempt for any authority, The Daily Show looked like an exciting update to what satire could be. It was also fabulously mean at times – just witness the utter cruelty of this segment reacting to Dick Cheney accidentally (and not fatally) shooting his hunting partner in the face.
The problem with Jon Stewart, I have to warn anyone looking to time travel to those less than peaceful neo-conservative days, is definitely not The Daily Show. Granted, it features an opening monologue behind the desk that – with its impassive zingers and endless archive clips from Fox News hosts saying outrageous / insane things – comes close to what Stewart has done every night on Comedy Central for 16 years.
But from there, in The Problem… deviates markedly from The Daily Show. Each episode sees Stewart seeking to solve a societal, political, or cultural problem, ranging from hyper-specific issues such as the deadly effects of US military fires to broader catch-all topics like “the economy.” He does this, primarily, by interviewing politicians, scientists, industry insiders, and others indirectly related to this issue.
These interviews are generally extremely long, often quite dignified and rarely terribly funny. And, in all fairness, I’m not sure they’re meant to be terribly funny. Stewart seems less interested in making people laugh than in motivating them to make a difference. This was already something that was starting to become evident towards the end of his run on the Daily Show – the burn pits episode is sort of a sequel to his impressive work raising awareness and money for first responders on the 11th. September – but with The Problem… he went further. Today, Stewart is more of an activist than a satirist.
He is not alone. If you’ve watched any of America’s premier current affairs satire shows for the past five years or so – last week tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the Trevor Noah-era Daily Show, even a few late hosts. parties such as Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers – you’ll have seen something similar: the usual razor-sharp gags devised by a well-armed militia of comedy writers, yes, but also big, moving campaigns and appeals to the ‘action.
Militant satire isn’t new (Mark Thomas has been doing it in the UK for decades), but this current strain found its voice in the cruelty and absurdity of the Trump era, where he only offered acid linings during travel bans, rampant corruption and attempts to subvert the democratic process did not really solve the problem: one had to be seen as resistant in word and deed. Now that Trump is gone and business is on the edge, as usual, these comics have to work a little harder to activate their audiences: “We have to save the Postal Service – here’s how we do it!” Implored a recent segment of Full Frontal.
Is this “militant satire” a problem in itself? It’s certainly better than some of the current alternatives: the scattershot and hopelessly deaf Spitting Image or the low-stakes camaraderie of political shows such as Have I Got News For You. “Are you doing some kind of exotic court show or are you trying to change something?” Chris Morris, who knows a little more about these things, asked the satirists in a Channel 4 interview a few years ago, and by this metric, Stewart et al are successful.
Still, there’s a tricky line to shows like The Problem with Jon Stewart on Tiptoe. Satire is at its best when it draws you into a blinding awareness – about power, inequality, society – through laughter, rather than hitting you over the head with a message. Lean too much into the latter and, well, you’ve got a problem.
* As always with streaming, real, tangible ratings for The Problem… are impossible to obtain. Apple simply said that the series is the largest unscripted program among its still rather small roster of original shows.
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