Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show last night kicked off with an attempt to reset him to his old self that involved a hamburger defibrillator, Stephen Colbert in a hazmat suit, and later lipstick, and an impressively horrifying Miley Cyrus-at-the-VMAs impersonation. But the real joke was that even a sojourn away to direct a movie doesn’t really threaten Stewart’s brand or his panache. And after the schtick at the top of the show, Stewart demonstrated something that his counterparts at more traditional media outlets often suggest is not the case: that a long tenure in the same position as a commentator can be a gift, both to the person holding the job, and the people benefitting from the work.
It’s easy to see, for example, how Maureen Dowd’s penchant for nicknames, fashion commentary, and skepticism at other people’s life choices can wear thin over time. But Stewart’s gift, enabled by his dedicated, passionate audience, is that sometimes he can let his exhaustion show to good effect. It helps that Stewart returned in the midst of a news cycle that makes best use of that ability, with America seemingly on the brink of another war, this time in Syria.
“America taking military action against a Middle East regime. It’s like I never left,” he said after his replacement, John Oliver, had briefed him on other events, including the revelation of Anthony Weiner’s no-longer-so secret life as Carlos Danger. Stewart clicked gleefully through clips of prior presidents claiming evidence of weapons of mass destruction use as an excuse for interventions abroad, including George W. Bush’s invocation of “Fifty tons of mustard gas on a turkey farm,” his father’s explanation of the lead-up to the First Gulf War, and Bill Pullman grandly declaring “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day,” leavening that clip with a winking acknowledgement and a hint of military doctrine, explaining “Okay, that was a fictional president, and to be fair, that war was pretty justified.”
His frustration with the commentators who populate cable news outlets–and the fact that past failures don’t disqualify them from future opining on conflicts still to come–was equally clear when Stewart ran through a clip reel of appearances by commentators who’d been cheerleaders for the War in Iraq. “You know what else is weakness? Asking the advice of a parade of idiots who got things completely wrong in Iraq,” he declared, before donning a bandleader’s hat and baton to lead a cheery, desperate chorus of “Shut the fuck up!”
What’s frustrating about Stewart, of course, can be what’s frustrating about a certain strain of liberalism. There’s the insistence, often against evidence, that rationality will win the day, and if it won’t, clinging to the idea that it should. There’s a lot of expression of sensible negatives–at one point in the broadcast, Stewart points out that “You can’t use chemicals to kill your own people! You have to do it organically! America and the world want to make sure Assad only uses locally-sourced free long-range lead ordinance….Of course we still reserve the right to use bunker busters, cluster bombs, and the Mark 77, which is not, not filled with napalm. Technically.” All of this is true, but pointing out that, and that past interventions have gone poorly doesn’t actually leave us any closer to anything like a workable doctrine for intervention, or which weapons we should permit ourselves to use. And, not to be an utter church lady, but Stewart does have the occasional penchant for vulgarity that shoots past the point he’s trying to make. I get the idea that military operations in Syria can be interpreted as mostly about the projection of strength, and I got it several penis jokes before Stewart got to his punchline: “Operation: Just The Tip. One of Milton Bradley’s least popular games,” which seemed particularly tasteless over video of relatively young children playing Operation.
But those quibbles aside, what sets Stewart apart most from other long-running commentators who seem desiccated by their tenures in their perches is that he still seems profoundly interested. As funny as his weary rants about the Syrian war might have been, Stewart’s best segment was a conversation with Andrew Harper, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Jordan, which has been receiving enormous numbers of Syrian refugees. What was illuminating about the segment wasn’t simply that it highlighted the humanitarian crisis created by the Syrian conflict, but that Stewart and Harper managed, in a relatively brief conversation, on everything from Jordan’s initial attempts to simply integrate Syrian refugees into the general population rather than by setting up isolated camps, to the impact of refugees on local wages. So many prominent commentators react, after several years in their posts, as if there’s nothing new under the sun. Stewart, at his best, knows they’re wrong, even if he’s just pointing out the human ingenuity involved in setting up a roast chicken stand in a refugee camp.