Jon Stewart Is Playing Catch-Up At His Own Game
The Problem with Jon Stewart returned to AppleTV+ yesterday as the former Daily Show host began the second season of his long-form late night current affairs TV series with a forty minute episode on the topic of gender-affirming care for minors and the legislation combating its availability. Jon wasted no time returning to form as he showed us a montage of conservative talking heads debating the definition of the word “woman” while he cheerfully fired off lines like “I before E except after C, show me your d— so I know where you pee.”
The former king of political satire is officially back in action, but, during Jon’s six-year hiatus from the genre following his departure from The Daily Show in 2015, the medium itself has melted, morphed, and metastasized into something very different from what it was in the waning Obama years – and it’s Jon’s own progeny who are responsible for the shift. John Oliver is the current master of long-form late night comedic commentary, and Jon Stewart, The Man Who Launched A Thousand Shows, is now following in the footsteps of his own disciples.
2015 was the most chaotic year in the history of what we loosely define as the “political satire pretend news show” genre – Jon Stewart left The Daily Show in February, just a couple months after his friend and former correspondent Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was still in its infancy – HBO had picked up the program for a second season, but Last Week Tonight still didn’t have the following or the cultural weight that The Daily Show commanded.
The power void left by the departure of two biggest names in left-leaning comedic political commentary led to the creation of programs like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, a Stewart-produced Daily Show spin-off headed by the veteran correspondent in a hybrid talk show/panel show format that would last just two seasons before Comedy Central pulled the plug.
Samantha Bee and her husband Jason Jones jumped ship, joining TBS to create Full Frontal with Samantha Bee in February, 2016, making Bee the only female talk show host in late night. Full Frontal was a weekly show like Last Week Tonight instead of a nightly one like – well – The Nightly Show, and, similar to John Oliver, Bee tried to use the extra time to go more in-depth on topics that couldn’t be fully explained on a show with a constant 24-hour deadline. Full Frontal ran for seven glorious seasons and over 200 total episodes, but, sadly, TBS decided not to renew the show this past June.
Wyatt Cenac was a late pick-up for Jon Stewart protégés, but he would finally get his own show on HBO in 2018 with Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, also produced by John Oliver. The series eschewed the live studio audience entirely as Wyatt instead addressed the camera directly while he walked through three “problems” in each episode. Wyatt tackled broad and complicated issues such as the tenuous relationship between police departments and the communities they serve. The series was canceled after just two seasons.
As Jon Stewart enters the second year of his return to political satire, we can see the fingerprints of his protégés-turned-predecessors all over his new show – The Problem with Jon Stewart brought back the panels of Larry Wilmore, the weekly format and playful tone of Samantha Bee, the serious devotion to the subject matter of Wyatt Cenac, and the laser-focus and intensity of John Oliver. The Problem is an amalgam of all the new additions to the genre since Stewart first stepped out, but the biggest change to the medium since 2015 is simple and obvious – there’s a new sheriff in town. Jon Stewart left the game on top, but now he’s fighting for second place behind John Oliver.
Out of all of Jon Stewart’s descendants, only John Oliver has managed to stay on the air – the first to leave is the last one standing. Not only has Oliver survived, he’s thrived. Last Week Tonight’s hybrid of humor and investigative reporting has netted 26 Emmys and two Peabody Awards among many other accolades, and the series has made John Oliver the defining voice of comedic anger in an unjust world. The impact of Oliver on the topics he examines has been uncreatively named “The John Oliver Effect,” and his segments have led to tangible political action, including the ending of unfair bail requirements in New York City, crashing the FCC website with complaints about Net Neutrality, and pressuring lawmakers to place major limitations on civil forfeiture laws.
There is no shortage of complicated and important political issues that could use an inquisitive comedian to dissect them in a digestible way for millions of people to gain a greater understanding of the problems facing their communities. Both The Problem with Jon Stewart and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver only work because their respective hosts are equal parts passionate and entertaining – but right now, Last Week Tonight doesn’t have contemporaries, and The Problem with Jon Stewart has a long way to go before it hits anything resembling “The John Oliver Effect.” Jon left late night a master, but he returns as John’s student.
Top Image: Comedy Central
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