January 25, 2024 - 1:05pm

In the latest edition of Everything You Once Loved Will Desecrate Itself Before Your Very Eyes, The Daily Show announced yesterday that Jon Stewart will be returning to host on Monday nights. 

Stewart’s return comes during a tough stretch for The Daily Show, which has struggled since Trevor Noah’s departure in December 2022, cycling through a roster of mostly uninspiring guest hosts. In fact, it’s not a great time for the late-night comedy sector as a whole. Viewership and ad revenue have plummeted since 2016, as Axios reported last year. 

Stewart left The Daily Show back in 2015, on the eve of the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle. At the time, Donald Trump’s colourful — often outrageous — campaigning style left pundits wondering whether it was even possible for comedians to compete with a reality so absurd. In an interview with the Guardian, Stewart described his decision to step down as “a combination of the limitations of my brain and a format that is geared towards following an increasingly redundant process, which is our political process. I was just thinking, ‘Are there other ways to skin this cat?’” 

After a few promising breaks from progressive consensus — he was an early proponent of the lab-leak theory, for one — Stewart must have ultimately decided that there weren’t other ways to skin the cat. He returned to Apple TV with The Problem with Jon Stewart, a title that proved more apt than the star could possibly have intended. Episode after episode, Stewart slogged and sermonised his way through the latest hot-button political issues — from “misinformation” to “gender-affirming care” to “the problem with white people”. At times, his desperation to recapture his old appeal was palpable. I kept thinking of Jeb Bush’s fatal stumble on the campaign trail, when he implored the audience to “please clap”

Then there was the sneering superficiality of Stewart’s treatment of a medical scandal I’ve studied closely, which he framed as the brave “new dawn of gender and sex complexity, where those who don’t fit into a simple binary are meant to be seen with humanity”. Stewart studiously avoided asking any of the obvious questions about the sudden profusion of (often objectively laughable) gender identities — despite his usual commitment to asking the obvious questions — and then mocked a caricature of that which he had not bothered to understand. The more I watched, the more the laughter in the studio sounded canned. Or maybe it was just hard to imagine anyone responding so enthusiastically to what Stewart had to offer. 

As someone who grew up watching The Daily Show, Stewart’s trajectory over the past few years has been painful to observe — and not just in the way that any bombed comedy set pains the audience. Stewart’s return to comedy raises some uncomfortable personal questions. Did I change? Did he change? In other words: what was I laughing at all those years? Was Stewart always so righteous and insufferable? Had I failed to see it because I’d been righteous and insufferable in just the same way? Were his interviews always so predictable? Somehow, the man whose show I couldn’t miss became the man whose every monologue I could have scripted had I been bored enough to try. 

But whether Stewart changed or I did, the times certainly have. It turns out strict orthodoxy is bad for comedians and other living things. Stewart’s return to the late-night circuit is easy to understand. Jon Stewart has a problem (no show). The Daily Show has a problem (no host). But the problem with late-night comedy won’t be so easily fixed. For that, we need climate change.

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.