February 13, 2024 - 10:00am

What’s old is new again. The Daily Show, floundering on increasingly marginal cable network Comedy Central, has turned to the familiar face of Jon Stewart to steady the ship. A quarter of a century on from his first time hosting the programme, Stewart’s pitch remains essentially the same: the Democrats and Republicans are both dumb, but the Republicans are dumber and you shouldn’t vote for them.

Last night’s opening show demonstrated that in 2024 this isn’t enough, as Stewart performed an odd monologue about the stakes of this year’s US election. The comedian led with jokes about Joe Biden’s diminished mental capacity based on the recently-released report from special counsel Robert Hur, always carefully softening the blow by noting that Donald Trump is more deranged. Stewart then lapsed into an extended discussion about the implications of election day that somehow managed to reference “coup plans” while helpfully noting that the world won’t end.

Stewart could have restored some sanity to a discourse inflamed by social media. Yet the late-night host instead chose to target ordinary Americans, who were skewered in an extended sequence featuring the show’s correspondents reporting on their sentiments against a green-screened backdrop of a Midwestern diner. Democrats are said to be slightly embarrassed by Biden’s incapacity and secretly lusting for a Taylor Swift presidential campaign, while Republicans are openly lusting for vengeance and bloodshed to be exacted on all who prevented Trump from assuming office after winning the 2020 election. It’s by-the-numbers political comedy of the SNL variant — nothing to see here, and certainly nothing that will appeal to Right-leaning viewers looking for points of commonality with liberals. 

Then there was Stewart’s overly enthusiastic and ultimately safe interview of the editor-in-chief of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes. He let various claims of hers slide — for example, the notion that “Thatcherism”, “Reaganism”, and “Clintonism” were all largely one thing, economically speaking, yet simultaneously distinct from what Trump is offering — in the course of joining her in stumping for Nato. Well-off Baby Boomers who occupy the political centre might agree with that, but these people aren’t going to turn up in sufficient numbers to save a faltering late-night comedy show on a marginal cable channel in a crowded market.

Stewart, in other words, isn’t the voice for any of these ears. Erring on one side or the other — perhaps hiring Shane Gillis, who has built a surprisingly intelligent comedy brand on the Right after being canned by SNL before his tenure even started, or someone from one of the top-earning Left-wing podcasts — might have at least guaranteed a niche audience of one variety or the other. Last night’s show, however, amounted to more of the same and Stewart, who at one point directed the camera to shoot him in close-up to show how much he has aged, can’t do this vestigial consensus comedy act forever. As things stand, he can’t even do it five days a week.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work