Review: How Do You Solve ‘The Problem With Jon Stewart’?

Calling your new public-affairs-comedy show “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is a provocation and a pre-emption. It sounds like the title of a think-piece that would have been written at any level over the last twenty years, accusing the one-time “Daily Show” host of false equivalence, or partisanship, or naïveté.

Jon Stewart is aware of all this, the title says; he has even teed up your hack joke for you. You are free to title your review “The Problem With ‘The Problem With Jon Stewart,’” hit “Publish” and call it a day.

This type of defensive self-deprecation could be, properly, one other downside with Jon Stewart. Even as he was reinventing political and media criticism on Comedy Central’s faux newscast (before “fake news” was rebranded), he had a prepared deflection for each critiques and reward: We’re only a comedy show. As he told Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004 — a confrontation that only burnished his reputation as a Twenty first-century Howard Beale — “The show that leads into me is puppets making prank phone calls.”

With “The Problem,” showing every different Thursday on Apple TV+, that is now not true, and never simply within the literal sense that on streaming TV there aren’t any lead-ins. In stature and within the new show’s spirit, he’s now a pie thrower with a goal.

Stewart has joined the ranks of personages like David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, creating high-minded programming for streaming TV. He is an éminence grise, although he makes his scruffy grise-iness a punchline. “This is what I look like now,” he tells his viewers. “I don’t like it either.”

“The Problem” is his attempt to step up to that standing and make a critical distinction, albeit with one hand on the seltzer spritzer simply in case. In its first two episodes, his show is “The Daily Show” but longer (round 45 minutes), more sustained and passionate in its consideration and fewer humorous — usually deliberately, typically not.

The construction, Stewart says within the first episode, was inspired by a 2010 “Daily Show” in which a panel of 9/11 responders talked about their lingering health issues and Congress’s failure to approve help for them. Stewart became an advocate, on air and in Washington, for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

“The Problem” groups up the satirist Stewart with the advocate Stewart. There are comedian rants, taped sketches and the occasional off-color joke about the snake on the far-right image the Gadsden flag. But there’s also more room for different voices. Each episode facilities on one issue — veterans’ health, gun violence, threats to democracy — and brings on panels of “stakeholders” affected by it.

The deep-dive strategy is new for Stewart but not for the world of TV advocomedy he’s rejoining, formed partially by “Daily Show” alums like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj and Wyatt Cenac. (The resemblance to Cenac’s former HBO series “Problem Areas” was not lost on its host, who tweeted a clip of himself saying, “If you want somebody to take a Black guy saying something meaningful on TV seriously, you really need to have a white guy say basically the same thing right after.”)

The largest value-add Jon Stewart brings, truthfully, is Jon Stewart — his fame and talent to direct a highlight. The panels are the most distinctive a part of “The Problem,” drawing on the host’s later-era curiosity and empathy.

The first episode concentrates on veterans whose health-coverage claims are being denied by the federal government after their publicity to “burn pits,” in which troops incinerated poisonous waste utilizing jet fuel.

It’s agonizing to listen to vets (whom, Stewart notes, politicians like to pay lip service to) discuss of lung scarring and suicide makes an attempt, saying they really feel ignored and disposed. “Once you’re out, they do not care,” says the retired Army Sgt. Isiah James. An interview with Denis McDonough, the secretary of veterans affairs, shows an engaged, urgent interrogation fashion that took Stewart years to evolve.

Surprisingly, the comedy is the shakiest half early on. The first monologue hits air pockets of wan laughter — possibly the viewers was uncertain what to anticipate, possibly it was jarred by the distinction between the grim material and the punch strains. Either way, it throws the momentum off. “I thought you people liked me!” Stewart jokes. They clearly do, but the sensation {that a} crowd is working to take pleasure in a monologue never makes for an excellent show.

The second episode is more caustically humorous but also more scattershot. The matter is “freedom,” which suggests a tirade, à la classic “Daily Show,” on anti-vaccinators who’re prolonging the pandemic within the title of liberty, adopted by a prolonged panel on the rise of authoritarianism within the United States and overseas. It’s more broad web than deep dive.

In each episodes, the comedy appears to be engaged on a parallel observe to the journalism slightly than constructing with it to a climax, as on Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” But the satire within the second episode hits tougher, together with a bit in which the actress Jenifer Lewis lambastes the protesters who’ve likened masks mandates to slavery: “They picked cotton. You just have to wear it.”

Did I like this higher as a result of it was nearer to what I was used to from “The Daily Show”? Or as a result of, like all viewers fist-pumping as their favourite late-night comedian “destroys” anyone, I simply like listening to somebody acerbically agree with me?

Stewart, to his credit score, appears uncomfortable with preaching to the like-minded, joking at one level that his viewers is “a very broad-based selection of Upper West Side Jews.”

There’s a recurring self-consciousness about the constraints of comedy right here, which comes up during an earnest dialogue within the writers’ room. (These behind-the-scenes segments show a more various workers than on the outdated “Daily Show,” one other oft-cited Problem With Jon Stewart.) The host gestures to an inventory on the whiteboard and cracks: “This is the problem with the comedy hybrid shows. The whole time we’re talking about this, I’m just looking at: No. 1 with an asterisk, ‘Snake penis.’”

On the opposite hand: Snake penis! It has all the time been a mistake for people, critics like me included, to deal with Stewart’s critical goals and his jokes as in the event that they were separate. Good comedy comes out of caring about something sufficient to think creatively about it. “The Daily Show” might not have got down to repair issues, but it gave viewers a toolbox, educating them media literacy and bringing them the information with incision and evaluation.

Of course, that only went so far. Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally for Sanity” before the 2010 midterms presaged an period of politics that rewarded demagogy and unhealthy religion. (“We won,” he quips, when a visitor references the rally on “The Problem.”) His last “Daily Show,” which included a valediction urging viewers to see by way of bluster and lies, aired the same night as the primary presidential-primary debate of Donald Trump.

I can perceive the pull of trying to proactively make a distinction, to do something more than mere comedy. But for now — and discuss shows need a long breaking-in interval — possibly the best factor Stewart and “The Problem” can do is refine an leisure sharp sufficient to attract the eye that he needs to redirect.

This, too, is a contribution. If “The Problem” ends in a new equal of the Zadroga invoice sometime, nice. But they also serve who only sit and mock.

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