- Series name:The Problem with Jon Stewart
- Creator:Jon Stewart
- Genre:Talk show
- Network:Apple TV+
- Rating: 3.5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5
Two aging, graying heroes returned to our screens last Thursday.
Daniel Craig’s James Bond was charged with nothing less than saving the entire movie theater industry as it teeters on the brink in these panicky, pandemic-y times. There was also some movie plot about thwarting the evil intentions of yet another megalomaniac with daddy issues, but I was too distracted by people coughing in the cinema around me to pay much attention to the rather tedious on-screen bioweapon storyline.
Jon Stewart, meanwhile, has set himself the task of nothing less than making the world a better place with his new show “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” which debuted on Apple TV+, and what could be a more typically self-deprecating Stewart move than not having a comma in that title?
Stewart has been on hiatus from TV for the past six years, since quitting “The Daily Show” in August 2015 after 16 years’ sterling service that established him as an American liberal icon. That status perhaps peaked in 2010 with his “Rally to Restore Sanity” march in Washington, which attracted thousands of participants. As he jokes in episode 2 of “Problem,” clearly, he won that cause.
It was actually a December 2010 episode of “The Daily Show” that inspired the format of his belated return to our screens: In it, he brought four first responders into the Comedy Central studio to discuss Republican senators blocking the Zadroga Bill, which sought to give health care to 9/11 workers blighted by their efforts at Ground Zero.
Despite his scraggly look perhaps suggesting otherwise, Stewart hasn’t been living in a cave these past few years. He wrote and directed the 2020 romantic comedy “Irresistible,” about a political fixer working on an election campaign in Hicksville, USA (I really enjoyed it, though it drew mixed reviews overall).
But his finest work can be seen in the recent documentary “No Responders Left Behind,” in which he recalls another famous Stewart (James) from the Frank Capra classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with Jon assailing members of Congress for their continued apathy toward aiding ailing 9/11 workers.
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It’s particularly fascinating to learn from the “Responders” documentary that Stewart’s incredibly powerful speech in the Capitol Building (“Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity – time. … They did their jobs – 18 years later, do yours!”) was done off-the-cuff, after fellow activist John Feal deliberately took his prepared speech away from him prior to the hearing.
I kept thinking of that speech, in which Stewart’s trademark pen-twirling reached new levels of intensity, as I watched the first episode of “Problem.” It focuses on how the U.S. government is – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – stalling on recognizing the health problems suffered by many military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost certainly caused by the huge “burn pits” that released toxic fumes into the atmosphere and the soldiers’ lungs. (An unspoken aspect here is what effect these huge garbage fires, in which anything from discarded weaponry to human faeces and body parts were burned, also had on the local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
The host explains the show’s setup to us by filming (staging?) an initial producer meeting in which we are told the first act will serve as a “mall map” of the situation, and the second act will see Stewart interview “the stakeholders” who are directly affected by the dilemma.
The first episode also features a third act in which Mr. Stewart goes to Washington to interview the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough. This is probably the most memorable part of the episode, due to McDonough setting the world record for squirming.
After viewing two episodes, to say “The Problem with Jon Stewart” is still finding its feet is something of an understatement: I’ve seen steadier newborn giraffes.
The show certainly doesn’t make things easy for itself by starting with such a serious, laugh-free topic. That’s a laudable, mature move, but episode 2 – tackling the subject of “freedom,” and whatever the heck that means – is probably what many viewers were initially tuning in and expecting to see.
Remember me from ‘Elmopalooza’?
After the “producers meeting” set-up and opening credits – which hint at the amount of thought that went into nailing down the concept with a series of alternative titles (“The Money Grab with Jon Stewart” being the pick of the bunch) – the first episode then starts in earnest with one of the worst gags Stewart has ever delivered in front of a live audience: “You may remember me from such hits as MTV’s ‘You Wrote It, You Watch It’ and ‘Elmopalooza!’”
That niche line (again, more self-deprecation) about Stewart’s back catalog dies a deserved death. Nobody laughs, which at least allows him to respond with “I guess that answers whether the show will be funny or not.”
Yet the truth is that, like “The Daily Show” before it, parts of “Problem” are killer one-liners and parts are deadly serious, with the subject dictating the tone.
Episode 1 is clearly on the “deadly serious” end of the spectrum, but it’s not helped by the studio audience giving absolutely no response (Stewart jokes that the audience is a very broad-based selection of Upper West Side Jews).
For instance, there are a couple of moments when “stakeholders” deliver rousing speeches about the health predicament of themselves and fellow veterans, which deserve instant standing ovations. Instead, the audience is bafflingly silent – perhaps they have been stunned by the stories they are hearing, as Stewart suggests. But these are from-the-heart speeches that demand a response.
At 44 minutes, both of the episodes I’ve seen lack energy in places – which suggests the shows are either too long or need more content to sustain them.
One of the problems of the “stakeholders” format thus far is that there are no dissenting voices among the panelists and no sense of conflict – which, of course, is what drama thrives upon. And I’m not sure Stewart’s strongest suit is his interviewing skills (though these interviews are nowhere near as bad as the ones he used to phone in with authors and actors on “The Daily Show”).
The first 15 minutes of episode 2, focusing on some Americans’ libertarian – or, to use the more apt word, selfish – responses to COVID, is one of the sharpest things I’ve seen all year (including a very funny Stewart response to the line “A prom should never inspire images in my mind of Auschwitz”). But then the show pivots to talking about life under an authoritarian regime, which literally feels like it could have taken place any time in the last 40 years, instead of addressing the unmasked, unvaccinated elephant in the room.
The strange thing is that Stewart is producing lots of interesting content on his topics, but has chosen to spread it between the fortnightly TV show and a complementary weekly podcast, also called “The Problem with Jon Stewart.”
The first episode of the podcast features a couple of entertaining features in which the spotlight is shone on members of his production team. For example, Stewart chats with a writer and a production assistant on the show who also happen to be veterans (one served in the marines, the other in the air force), giving them the chance to share their experiences (or lack of) with burn pits and military life in general.
It’s a very funny, illuminating segment, as is another on an alleged $60,000 toilet located somewhere in the Pentagon.
But there’s also a smart, serious interview with the senators Jon Tester and Jerry Moran, who sit on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and are trying to enact the Cost of War Act, which would provide health care and benefits to vets suffering the effects of toxic exposure.
That act is exactly the kind of thing Stewart should be covering in the TV show as well, but you only hear about it if you listen to the podcast. Weakening the main program at the expense of the podcast seems a peculiar business model, even if Apple has a vested interest in both formats.
With “Problem,” Apple is venturing into a problematic genre for streaming services: a topical show. Netflix has enjoyed mixed success with its efforts involving former “Daily Show” alumni – “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” ran for six seasons, tackling such issues as Saudi Arabia, censorship in China and student debt, but Michelle Wolf’s “The Break” was axed after just one season and 10 episodes.
Those shows never managed to break free of the rules of conventional TV, and even Stewart seems to think he’s still on Comedy Central rather than an ad-free format, structuring each episode around “We’ll be right back after this” segments and forced interludes.
I’m confident the show will iron out its early problems (it should definitely add more content to the TV version at the expense of the podcast). Because even in a crowded market where the likes of Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and John Oliver are all hitting us over the head with the world’s woes, and America’s in particular, there is always room for a voice as sharp and smart as Jon Stewart’s.
“The Problem with Jon Stewart” is on Apple TV+ with new episodes dropping every other Thursday. Episode 2 airs from October 14.
Three classic Jon Stewart one-liners in ‘The Problem with...’
1. ‘I wanted to address the elephant in the room – this is what I look like now. I’m not very happy about it either. Very few people would be happy looking like an anti-smoking poster.’
2. ‘[America is] a land so great that people escape their own country to come to a place where people pay to escape a room.’
3. ‘Auschwitz is a terrible prom theme: “Ah, a Kristallnacht to remember!”’