Let's get this out of the way upfront: The Problem with Jon Stewart is not funny.
Well, okay, there's a segment called "What's More Hitler?" that's pretty funny, and a "snake penis" callback in the second episode that made me guffaw — but other than that, Jon Stewart is back, but he's not back to make you laugh. Or at least, not exactly.
After 16 years of hosting The Daily Show, followed by a six-year hiatus from television, Stewart returns Thursday on Apple TV+ with The Problem, a 45-minute, biweekly current events talk show. Similar to Daily Show alumn John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, each episode of The Problem centers on a different issue plaguing the country. "Let's have the first act be like a roadmap, you know, 'you are here,' whatever issue we're dealing with," Stewart tells his writers' room in the behind-the-scenes footage that kicks off the first episode. "And then that second act or whatever, let's find the stakeholders, the voices that can give that witness testimony."
If you're wondering so where is the '...with Jon Stewart' part of all this?, good question. This is still the Stewart we know and love. We've seen this version of him before, like in 2010, when he hosted a panel of sick 9/11 first responders. Or in 2015, there was his powerful monologue after the Charleston church shooting. But The Problem is hosted by Stewart the comedian, sans the "noise" of comedy. "I like that this is more of a conversation," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's probably a terrible pitch for the show."
Take the first episode, about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denying coverage for veterans' illnesses linked to inhalation of fumes from burn pits used to dispose of trash near U.S. bases in the Middle East. Though Stewart still delivers sharp one-liners — "It turns out when you invade a country, they don't tell you when trash day is" — they're clearly a secondary priority to amplifying the cause at hand.
"What the [Department of Defense (DoD)] and the VA are saying is that they just don't have the proof, the scientific evidence, that exposure to benzenes and dioxins in burning pits made soldiers sick," Stewart says, adding that if it's proof the department is looking for, then "maybe the DoD want their science from a memo that they wrote to their f--king selves." The memo line doesn't elicit any laughs from the studio audience — Stewart's tone turns what could (and, c. 2014, would) have been a joke into an expression of genuine fury.
In the episode's next segment, Stewart moderates a conversation between veterans trying to draw attention to "our generation's Agent Orange." It's remarkable how quickly the ostensible host of the show melts into the background. Though Stewart actively directs the panel, his guests are so sympathetic and articulate they become most memorable voices of the talk. In one exceptionally powerful moment — when retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black describes his diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer, his excruciating physical pain, and the knowledge that he won't see his son grow up — the dam within me broke: Jon Stewart's new show didn't make me laugh. It made me cry.
Comedians are supposed to be funny, and usually that requires them to be the center of attention. Yet Stewart is neither of these things in The Problem, and he seems acutely aware of disappointing viewer expectations with this choice. The next time he goes to the Comedy Cellar, he quips at the end of episode one, "they're all going to be like, 'Oh look, Mother Teresa just came.'" It's clear he's trying to strike a difficult balance of using his fame for good without making bigger issues about himself.
Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. On The Daily Show, Stewart's humor was an effective tool to lure in viewers, then tell them something important. By stripping away the expectation of humor from The Problem's start, Stewart may have abandoned his most tempting bait.
Or he may be prepared to work without it. Stewart isn't naïve; he knows most people will consume The Problem in clips on YouTube rather than stream the entire show (much less stream it on Apple TV+, which this summer claimed to have fewer than 20 million subscribers). That's part of what makes The Problem strange — and quite possibly very special: By Stewart's own admission, it's "less entertaining" than we might expect from him, but in the absence of distractions, also "more complete."
That's the thing about being angry. Sometimes it's just "yelling at the screen," as Stewart described his old approach to The New York Times. And historically, Stewart yelling at the screen has been pretty hilarious! But sometimes being angry provokes us to a righteous stubbornness, giving us the energy and inclination to insist, over and over, that someone needs to care, until someone, anyone, starts to listen.