On Monday night, Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show. Nearly four months to the day since stepping down as host of the show he made absolutely essential, Stewart was back on-set, this time only to reprise a call to arms he brought to the country five years ago. It was then that Stewart first began lobbying for first responders still living with the aftermath of 9/11, at the time featuring a panel of four men who spoke of their health issues following their heroic actions during the attacks. That panel and Stewart's passionate advocacy for the cause is what was credited with pushing a bill through Congress pledging federal funds for healthcare for the first responders of 9/11. It was a case of a man who modestly referred to himself as a comedian assuming a mantle of far more importance in our popular culture than even he might have imagined, with no less than the New York Times calling the crusade his Murrow moment. It was something Stewart had, without realizing it, been working toward for years and it was a title he'd continue to earn for years after.
It's doubtful Stewart's return was intended to highlight the stark contrast between him and his successor, 31-year-old Trevor Noah, but intentional or not -- it did. It did in ways that are simply undeniable. On Monday, for a few very powerful minutes, The Daily Show was something it hasn't been once in the months since Stewart left and Noah took over: relevant, important, necessary. Everything Jon Stewart brought to TDS for so long, what elevated it from a basic cable comedy-news show to the place for arguably the smartest, funniest and most ferocious political satire in America, was finally there again and it felt like a cool drink of water after a long time spent wandering the desert. Admittedly, there's a learning curve you have to allow for someone who steps into shoes as big as Stewart's, but after four months it's become pretty clear that not only is Trevor Noah not a worthwhile substitute for Stewart, he isn't blazing his own trail into new territory that will keep The Daily Show's hallowed legacy alive and afloat. With Noah at the helm, TDS has become just another snarky also-ran when it comes to political humor and satire, shrinking in the shadow of the audience's memory of what it once was and merely existing in comparison to other entities like it dotting the political and cultural landscape.
The differences between Noah and his predecessor are many, but the main issue is one of gravitas, which is a strange word to use when describing a position that is, at its core, comedic. It's true that when The Daily Show first began, debut host Craig Kilborn didn't imagine it as a property that could foster real change and that would become vital to the political conversation. He was a smug overgrown frat-boy who just wanted to mock anything and everything in deadpan. Honestly, his shtick was funny and it suited what TDS was at the time. But it's impossible to disregard the fact that 16 years of Stewart changed The Daily Show and its mission tremendously and it's now impossible to go back to what the show used to be precisely because throughout Stewart's tenure it became a public service. Stewart's sincerity and, yes, heart were what allowed him and The Daily Show to become the face of America's frustration with extremist political hypocrisy and media stupidity, hypocrisy and stupidity that the show not only skewered but actually exposed, dragging it out kicking and screaming into the light night after night. Under Stewart's leadership, TDS was an iconic property, and through laughter and certainly some very dark moments he spoke for us with passion and power.
Trevor Noah, on the other hand, has taken several steps toward returning The Daily Show to what it was in its infancy. True, he's not as cold as Kilborn because after Stewart there would be a cultural revolt if he were. Still, he reacts to our political absurdity with an impish gleam in his eye and he constantly, constantly falls back on his status as a foreigner to purposely distance himself from the process in all its ugliness. There are some who can approach American politics and culture with a foreign sensibility and do astonishing things; John Oliver immediately comes to mind. But what makes Oliver work so well is that he sees the negative aspects of our country's policy and points out not only their absurdity but their offensiveness -- and more than that, he digs deep in the interest of trying to do something about it. Noah simply shrugs and smirks. Even when he goes "on the attack," he's already distanced himself from his target by reinforcing the fact that he's not from here and is therefore confused and amused by the way we do things and that takes the force out of his punches. And full-on rhetorical and intellectual punches are exactly what's needed from The Daily Show -- and more than that, it's what's expected of the program, thanks to the yeoman's work Jon Stewart did for so many years.
From the very beginning it was clear that Trevor Noah didn't know what the problem was so he definitely wasn't going to be able to be part of the solution. He made it clear at the outset that his version of The Daily Show would forgo Stewart's relentless attacks on Fox News in favor of mocking Millennial-targeted internet media like Twitter, Buzzfeed and Gawker. Unfortunately, while Twitter has indeed dumbed down our discourse, Buzzfeed and Gawker are merely annoyances, symbols of an obsession with the trivial and inane; Fox News on the other hand continues to be a cancer within our culture, a ceaseless fountain of disinformation and bullshit that impacts policy and sets the political tone for one of two major parties in our system. Relinquishing its status as the primary voice holding Fox News accountable day in and day out felt like a dereliction of duty for the new Daily Show since day one and it also revealed Trevor Noah to be a hapless neophyte in terms of understanding what really makes U.S. politics tick. It fit perfectly with his personality and his desire to be more snarky than genuinely satirical but his vision of TDS came at the expense of the rest of us.
The thing is, a show that targets the interests of Millennials is exactly what Comedy Central wanted from Noah and it's exactly what he's delivered. Nielsen ratings for The Daily Show have plummeted 37% since Noah first took the reins, but the network claims not to care because nightlies aren't the metric that matters to it anymore. "I couldn’t be happier,” Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless told TheWrap a couple of months ago, saying that she's pleased TDS now offers “a more global … Millennial perspective.” Noah's show has increased viewership on digital platforms by 10% and its viewership in the 18-24 demo is up by 20%, which is fine except that 25-54 is the demo advertisers truly prize. What the numbers don't show but what the clearly enunciated intentions of Comedy Central do is that hiring Trevor Noah was at least partially a cynical play for Millennial eyeballs rather than an effort to continue the tremendous legacy of the house that Jon built. Finding someone who was both a Millennial and a smart political satirist would've been ideal and not at all out of the question, but instead Comedy Central went with someone who, furthering the worst kind of stereotypes, made his comedy all about his personal perspective rather than ours (and by "ours" I'm not talking about a particular age group but rather an overall ability to get deep inside American politics in all its ridiculousness).
Jon Stewart isn't coming back to The Daily Show. He left the show precisely because of the toll dealing with all that stupidity night after night took on him as someone who genuinely cared and wanted to change things for the better. But the person chosen to take the reins after him needed to be somebody who could take up that mantle even if he or she didn't have Stewart's precise way of doing it or wasn't blessed with his eminently relatable "everyman" personality. Other people on other shows have now gone on to take up some of the slack left in Stewart's absence, including John Oliver on HBO and Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central -- doing a show that now feels like an admirably close replacement for the Daily Show we all loved -- but no one will ever fill the void left behind by the end of TDS as it was under Stewart. Someone could have been brought in who would carry that historic property forward with early hints that the trust we'd had in Stewart would at some point soon -- maybe in a dark hour for us as a nation -- be transferred onto him or her. Someone could have taken the reins of The Daily Show who'd bring it to new audiences while acknowledging that the service it performed was absolutely essential to us as a political culture and needed to be continued. Unfortunately, we didn't get that. We got Trevor Noah.
On Monday, when Jon Stewart first sheepishly appeared next the Daily Show set, to the sound of raucous applause from the shocked audience, he was greeted by Trevor Noah, who pretended to be surprised. After shuffling over and asking if he could sit down, he was told by Noah, "My show is your show." 17 minutes later, after Stewart had viciously shamed Congress and spoken out with passion and heart for some of America's 9/11 heroes, it was clear that, yes, it is -- it's still Jon Stewart's show.