As could be expected for anyone who watched “The Daily Show” during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run, he had a few points to make in his return to stand-up, which closed out the three-day Clusterfest in San Francisco Sunday night.
First, he doesn’t miss his old job, which altered the climate of late-night comedy. But second, he clearly missed his first one. And as comedy fans, we can be thankful for that (and he’s about to go on the road with Dave Chappelle for a seven-night joint tour).
Perhaps lost in the legacy of Stewart as a man at a desk who both satirized the news and pointed out the hypocrisy of its narratives was the fact that he was a smart, road-tested comedian first. And with its extended, thoughtful examinations of the cultural climate and deliberate, conversational pacing, Stewart, who left “The Daily Show” in 2015, showed a command of the form that has few equals onstage.
“I gotta keep this funny somewhere,” he admitted after a quick, silly line to break up a bit that defended so-called political correctness, “otherwise, this just gets to be a weird show.”
Occasionally referred to as a sort of comedic conscience in his time at “The Daily Show” with pointed, at times angry criticism that was forewarned with a “meet me at camera three,” Stewart had a delicate line to tread.
On one side, he had to — and was probably eager to — comment on the political climate, which has ventured into absurd, often harrowing corners once unimaginable during his time on the air. On the other, he was delivering a comedy show and not some cross between a socially conscious TED Talk and a campaign speech for a run that was never happening.
And for the show’s 75 minutes, it was a line he walked as few could. He didn’t forget to get laughs, but he wasn’t afraid to set them aside either as the packed Civic Center Plaza at times sounded more quiet and attentive than any show that size in years.
And for any fan looking for the sort of “epic takedown,” he delivered an extended, gleefully detailed recounting of his odd “Twitter feud” with Donald Trump in 2013, which primarily consisted of some dog-whistle, anti-Semitic remarks directed to Stewart for not using his real name (Leibowitz), and Stewart’s bewilderment since he didn’t — and still doesn’t — use Twitter. (“Because I don’t [care] what any of you think,” he said with a cheery smile.)
The bit came in the service of defending his former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee, who has come under fire since she called Ivanka Trump a vulgar name in a segment on her show “Full Frontal.” The backlash has led to calls from the White House for her show to be canceled, and Stewart was just a few minutes into his set before he acknowledged the controversy.
“Are you applauding my stamina?” he asked incredulously after referencing his 16-year run of mocking Fox News in his former day job. “You are a bunch of feckless …. ,” using the word that landed Bee in trouble.
“You will not find a kinder, smarter, more lovely individual than Sam Bee, trust me,” he went on. “If she calls someone a ….” And then he sort of shrugged knowingly. “It’d be like if you heard a story, ‘And then Gandhi just punched that dude.’ You’d be like, ‘Well...what did the dude do?’”
He ultimately dismissed the outcry, insisting Bee’s right-wing critics “don’t care about the language. They care about winning.”
Earlier in the day, Stewart appeared at an afternoon Q&A at the festival and, like his successor at “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah, expressed a sort of admiration for the right wing’s effective media strategy of selective victimhood. But, tellingly, the same discussion found Stewart confronting his bit of culpability in what he described as the public’s frequent mistaking of “cultural power for power” and the relative emptiness of pointed words without action.
“We are baffled by this cat, because the normal rules of engagement have not in any way worked on him,” he said of Trump, adding that looking for a “quick fix” through the Russia investigation or impeachment wasn’t sufficient for his opposition, which was handily personified in his San Francisco audience. “Beat him,” he said. “In an election. With ideas. Convince enough people, in the right electoral areas . . .” And then he cursed. Keep this funny somewhere.
But as much as Stewart made room to criticize the larger world, he saved plenty for himself. Along with recounting his own need to be corrected with his former casual use of a word like “retarded” (“I like how quiet everybody has gotten — I figure I can do all this, it’s a sanctuary city, right?”), he also revisited being confronted by his own show’s sexism after a 2010 Jezebel article pointed out a lack of women on his staff.
“They called me on my [stuff], and it felt bad,” he said. “But it was right.” And while much of the set found Stewart at a loss for answers and as confused by the political climate as anyone, he flipped what he had learned in his own failings into another way forward for the intractable members of his crowd.
“You have to be cognizant that not everybody who uses those [words] are evil, and given that the time and the open space will change, we need allies,” he said, citing some first responders he’s met who were Trump voters that he also loves for the people they are. Then, flying against the “clapter” a comic often hears in response to political material that preaches to the choir, he took down his own audience.
“What do you do? How’s your iPhone? How’s that made? How’s your chicken sandwich?” he asked with a bite in his voice as the crowd went still. “All I’m saying is, no matter how ‘woke’ you are, everybody sleeps sometime. And we have to wake up together, or we don’t wake up at all.”
Then, somehow, even moving on to gun violence, the Middle East (shaped by his making the 2014 film “Rosewater”), Black Lives Matter and, most playfully, the differences in Christian and Jewish holidays, the laughs came back. And then they went away amid serious, even sad, topics of the sort a skilled comic can talk about because the audience knows they’re going to be brought back.
And though the world seems darker than when Stewart was a regular part of it on television, he cautioned against giving into it. He added that given the pendulum swing from Obama to Trump, the next president was likely to be Janelle Monáe, and remembered that New York City’s return to its own twisted normal after 9/11 as justification for hope.
“We’re gonna be OK,” he said finally. Somehow, the idea didn’t sound funny.