I can picture Jon Stewart’s response to the commentary attending his impending return to The Daily Show for the election season: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Throwing his arms up in mock disbelief was one of Stewart’s go-to gestures throughout the 16-and-a-half years he hosted the show. Having watched him make it night after night from 1999 to 2015, I now think of him reflexively whenever I see the shrug emoji.

Comedy Central’s announcement that he will helm the show again starting Feb. 12, albeit only on Mondays, has been greeted in some quarters with giddy optimism (CNN: Jon Stewart’s return to ‘The Daily Show’ could shake up 2024 politics) and in others with dark pessimism (Time: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Return Is a Bad Omen for Late Night).

It pains me to say this as a fan, but I fear most Americans will respond with the signature Stewart shrug.

Consider how much has changed since he signed off, saying “I’m just going to go get a drink. And I’m sure I’ll see you guys before I leave.”

For starters, the comedy landscape has changed: Comedy Central is a husk of its former self, its ratings having gone the way of all cable TV in the era of streaming. It has not produced a significant hit show in years, and bringing Stewart back smacks of more than a little desperation. More broadly, late night TV has been losing ratings and revenues for years. An avid consumer of comedy, I get my yuks mostly from YouTube or clips on my social media feeds.


The political landscape has changed, too. Stewart’s stock in trade is the mockery of our leaders and some of their zanier followers. But it is hard to laugh at Donald Trump and his MAGA hordes: They are too dangerous; the threat they pose to our republic is too grave.

I tend to agree with comic writers like Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, and Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep, who have said that Trump is beyond satire, especially the kind that Stewart purveys. Comedy rooted in liberal politics works best when it is poking fun at the establishment. But author and cultural commentator Joel Stein, a practiced poker of fun himself, points out that the liberals now are the establishment. With Trump looming large, Stein tells me, “the role [of liberal comedy] is to protect the establishment from the barbarians. Can comedy do that? It’s not inherently funny. When you’re so scared at the change at your door, it’s not a great place to do comedy from.”

Others argue that it is more important than ever to laugh at our national political predicament. “Satire is always appropriate,” says Richard Zoglin, culture critic and author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America. “Satirists play a role in holding Trump accountable.”

But finally, and perhaps most dishearteningly for his fans, Stewart has changed. Few comedians have returned from a long hiatus with their edge unblunted, and the glimpses we’ve had of Stewart in recent years allows for no optimism that he will be an exception to the rule.

Long before his Apple TV+ show The Problem with John Stewart was canceled – reportedly over creative differences on how to handle topics like China – critics had noted that it was only occasionally funny. Too often, he came across as a plain-vanilla scold. The classroom jokester turned into the disapproving teacher. “He’s older now, and more serious as a human,” Stein offers by way of explanation.

But so are those of us who laughed with him all those years, and many of us hope we can do so again. Since he will also be executive producer of The Daily Show, he has the opportunity to assemble a new supporting cast of smart writers and “reporters” – if age hasn’t dimmed the eye for talent that spotted the likes of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

It won’t save Comedy Central, though. In the very best-case scenario, we’ll watch Stewart’s comeback show, and maybe linger for a Monday or two afterward. Then, most of us will return to watching clips of the show on social media.

Even if Stewart gets back into the national conversation, whatever the medium, will it make a difference? Zoglin holds out some hope, pointing out that satire is the one thing that gets under Trump’s otherwise impermeable skin: “Remember, he complained to Disney about Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes. He cares about this stuff.”

At least that’s one person who won’t be going ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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