In his new talk show ‘The Problem With,’ Jon Stewart gets to play newsman. Finally
Jon Stewart, who left “The Daily Show” in 2015, has officially returned to television. “The Problem With Jon Stewart” — you see what they did there — premieres Thursday on Apple TV+, with new episodes scheduled to arrive every two weeks. It incorporates a little of “The Daily Show,” in that for some portion of the hourlong program Stewart sits at a desk (though not dressed like a news anchor, as before, and not on a set dressed like a news show) and says hopefully funny things to a briefly glimpsed live audience.
It is a current affairs show, but does not play off breaking news. Each episode is organized around a big theme (“War” and “Freedom” are the two made available for review) refracted through an opening monologue, panel discussions, short filmed comedy bits and a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the producers’ meeting, which illustrates the diversity of Stewart’s younger-ish staff — with the sound down you might almost be watching a graduate seminar — but also feels more staged than it probably is.
There are filmed bits of varying effectiveness; in one, “Ken Burns presents Ken’s Burns,” the documentary filmmaker quips, “The government’s treatment of vets is so bad it makes my friend Werner Herzog’s film ‘Meeting Gorbachev’ look like his film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’” You are not supposed to understand it — that’s the joke — but congratulations if you do.
Times television critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd discuss the profound influence of “The Daily Show” in its 25 years on air.
Above all, there is an activist impulse at work here, foreshadowed in the opening credits, which stylistically cribs from punk rock and agitprop posters; Stewart’s guests will be stopping by not because they’re on a promotional tour, but because they can speak with some authority to the issues the episode’s big theme proposes.
“War” presents a group of veteran-activists working to bring attention to, and to get the Veterans Administration to recognize and treat, the toxic and carcinogenic effects of the open “burn pits” the military routinely used during various Gulf wars to destroy everything from armaments to uniforms to amputated body parts to feces by dousing them in jet fuel and setting it alight. “Freedom” brings together Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, facing prison for “cyberlibel”; former Venezuelan political prisoner Francisco Marquez; and Stewart’s old friend Bassem Youssef, known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, to discuss the slippery slope to autocracy. COVID-themed segments in the same episode look at the way some Americans refuse to get vaccinated or wear a mask in the name of their imagined right to do whatever they want — not exactly a hot topic by now but stubbornly evergreen.
As panel discussions go, these are a lot more productive than aroundtable or the dueling banjos of cable news. If they are earnest, even a little sentimental at times, that only helps to put the seal on their sincerity. And if they are not necessarily revelatory — there are Twitter threads that are just as informative and insightful — they are heartening, even when the subject is disheartening; they remind us that not everyone is satisfied to let things continue to fall apart. That the information is not all new — reporting on burn pits goes back more than a decade — underscores our tendency to sweep these issues under the table.
At one point, Stewart refers to “The Problem With” as a “comedy hybrid” show, which is true enough; so far, the noncomedic elements are the stronger. (“I guess that answers the question of whether the show will be funny or not,” Stewart says when his opening joke gets no reaction; other times the laughter, even though it might have been genuine, felt canned.) Stewart is acting more as a journalist here than a comedian doing an impression of one; when he leaves the studio to interview Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, he notes it being a first for him, and it is indeed a real exchange, driven by hope of action or change, not a classic “Daily Show” prank chat.
It’s difficult to judge these sorts of programs on their opening episodes; you hold them up to the host’s earlier shows, or other hosts’ current shows, for comparison, but it’s rare that everything works out of the box. “The Problem With Jon Stewart” does feel a little new-colt wobbly, and the host spends some time searching for his old rhythm, the soft-loud-soft approach, in which he rockets from calm to horror to a person crouched in a corner croaking “help.” He’s at his funniest making the squeaky little joke hung on the back of the main joke, or the even squeakier joke hung on the back of that, or when he is just being comical in conversation. A throwaway aside in which he describes his audience as “a very broad-based selection of Upper West Side Jews” is the voice you recognize of old.
Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg created the beloved news satire, which premiered 25 years ago. Why haven’t they gotten credit for it?
Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which ran half the length of “The Problem With,” was filled with other faces and voices — a deep bench of talent that included John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Jessica Williams, Hasan Minhaj, Wyatt Cenac, Aasif Mandvi, Larry Wilmore, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert; if that was not exactly the secret of its success, it certainly helped put it over. You get a lot more Stewart here — indeed, he’s rarely out of the picture — and he is not exactly the same man he was six years ago when he to Trevor Noah. (Addressing the “elephant in the room” on Thursday’s premiere: “This is what I look like now. I’m not happy about it either.”) Back then he was on television most nights, a driver of cultural conversations, and possibly even public policy, who could afford to pretend he wasn’t and whose tenure ended with a performance by Bruce Springsteen, who brought the band.
In those days, Stewart always emphasized that what he was doing on “The Daily Show” was not news but comedy; but there was more to it than that. Henny Youngman is comedy too, and no one ever mistook him for a pundit or a trusted news source. If such confusion was not precisely his fault, it was nevertheless his doing. “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is him owning up.
‘The Problem With Jon Stewart’
Where: Apple TV+
When: Any time, starting Thursday
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.