As of Sept. 3, Stephen Colbert’s worst nightmare is finally over. Jon Stewart, once and future fake news maven, has emerged from the Jordanian desert to take his rightful place at the Daily Show‘s anchor desk. (Sure, John Oliver did a great job filling in for his boss over the past 12 weeks — but as Colbert noted on his own show tonight, there’s just something morally reprehensible about getting news from someone with an English accent.)
Of course, Stewart’s transition from Hiatus Jon to Business-as-Usual Jon wasn’t entirely smooth. He returned from the Middle East with a full beard, a renewed activist fervor, and, if the pretaped segment that led tonight’s show is to be believed, the accent and mannerisms of some unholy Latka Gravas/Khlav Kalash Guy hybrid. Daily Show correspondents Oliver and Jessica Williams had no choice but to re-acclimate Stewart to American life by zapping him with a defibrillator hooked up to two juicy Big Macs — accidentally turning their leader into a raving Larry the Cable Guy doppelganger in the process.
As Oliver and Williams frantically tried to revive the Jon they (and we) know and love, Stewart rapidly transformed from one manic comic persona to another — aided by that new facial hair, which morphed with every costume change. He was Sherlock Holmes, he was Freddie Mercury, he was Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, he was a Mel Brooksian Hitler. It was as though Stewart was trying to stuff an entire summer’s worth of zany bits into one breathless, three-minute segment.
When he finally emerged as his familiar old self — clean-shaven, besuited, sporting a smirk both impish and world-weary — there was a marked shift in the episode’s tone. As the show’s second segment pointed out, John Oliver’s tenure had been marked by inherently goofy stories (Paula Deen, the royal baby, Carlos Danger). Stewart’s return, by contrast, happened to coincide with the crisis in Syria — a much more weighty topic.
Given what happened next, this seemed to be fine by Stewart. The longtime Daily Show host relished the chance to deliver a segment on Syria that contained both barbed jokes and a pointed message. (In short: “We have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade, and the red line that they’ve crossed is actually a d–k-measuring ribbon.”) He followed his finger-wagging with a straightforward, earnest interview of Andrew Harper, head of the UN refugee agency in Jordan.
Stewart’s political comedy has always been tinged with moralism, and he’s never shied away from speaking sincerely about issues that matter to him. Maybe he’ll lighten up as his time in Jordan grows less immediate; maybe he just seemed extra serious after a summer of British silliness. Still, there was a marked contrast between his first show back and John Oliver’s last show as anchor — and now that we’ve seen both in quick succession, it’s interesting to consider which version of the show is more enjoyable or objectively “better,” if there is such a thing.
What’s your take?