Citizen Stewart: Can Jon Steward Us Again?
➕ See Origin, another internet is possible, & I tried Apple's face computer! 🥽
As always, get the full, unlocked, maximally insightful edition over at Puck. But if you’re broke, I get it. We can’t all subscribe to all the things. I just turned off a bunch of my own subscriptions. They should change the name of this business model to “Customer Forgetfulness.” How are you planning to drive revenue at your business? I’m so glad you asked. We have a plan to launch a new Customer Forgetfulness program which will ensure stable cash flow years after they stop using our service. With our simple Set It and Forget It initiative, customers will ensure our financial reports look sound well into the future. Anyway, I love my subscriptions, the ones I actually use, like Puck, but I get the burnout so here’s your free I-love-you-anyway edition.
It’s the end of January, and we really have to stop hitting the snooze button in an attempt to avoid 2024. It’s time to wake up and face the fact that, yes, a consequential election is coming up, and not just for us in the United States: more than 50 countries will be tallying ballots this year. I find it hard to believe that it’s been almost four years since the last time these two candidates faced each other, which begs the question: Does it count as déjà vu if we’ve literally seen this before?
Before diving into today’s main story (Jon Stewart is back!), here’s some of what’s been grabbing my attention as I make the rounds through my feeds, conversations with friends, and gatherings to discuss how to defend democracy:
Usually when we say countries have a “totally separate internet,” we’re referring to authoritarian regimes like China or Iran, which surveil and restrict the digital activities of their citizens. America has gone the other way: a laissez-faire, market-driven approach that has created a mentally toxic environment, especially for children. Europe, on the other hand, is establishing a set of healthier rules that might result in a “totally separate” internet for the better. This post from Open Future lays out an inspiring vision for digital public spaces not controlled by commercial interests. It’s a good reminder that another world is possible, and we don’t have to settle for what we have. (Hat tip to New_Public for sharing.)
Once upon a time, when I was a Friday night regular on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, we had a recurring segment with me, Brian, and Bill Kristol, someone with whom I never thought I’d agree on anything. But I truly enjoyed those conversations, and started subscribing to The Bulwark, his anti-Trump conservative news site, to see what other sane things Kristol & Co. were putting into the ether. Last week, they published this open letter to Nikki Haley from U.S. Marine Corps veteran Michael Wood, who described her as a “forward-looking governor reduced to dissembling about the cause of the Civil War lest she offend Lost Cause neo-Confederates whose approval she desperately sought.” Ouch! Wood then invites her to do something useful with her moment in the spotlight: “Go to your home state and tell the truth. You’re incredibly smart and well spoken—imagine how much better you’ll sound when you liberate yourself from trying to placate the MAGA cult and say what you actually think.” Read it all, and allow yourself to indulge in Wood’s inspiring vision of an honest Nikki Haley. Rising authoritarianism makes for strange bedfellows so, run, Nikki, run??
Apple released its face computer! I got to try it for about an hour (check out these Apple-approved photos of me being impressed by the experience). My quick thoughts on Apple’s $3,500 ski goggles: It’s too heavy; it’s more technically impressive than I imagined; and it’s surprisingly easy to navigate. I went on the Techmeme Ride Home podcast, one of my daily must-listens, to discuss it further, and how generative A.I. will transform the web. Listen to the episode here or watch it on YouTube. Much has been made of the Vision Pro’s lack of media and apps (see my colleague Julia Alexander’s latest piece for a smart look at why the Vision Pro might struggle for content), but I think the truly killer app will be immersive virtual travel, education, and training.
Finally, with Black History Month approaching, here’s some media I’m eager to dive into. Last night I finally got myself to a movie theater to see Ava DuVernay’s Origin. Trust me. See it. Take someone with you. It’s so much better than I expected, and it’s urgent viewing in this election year. Ava dramatized Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, in brilliant ways that build bridges between communities across the globe, including Black folks, Jewish people, the Dalits of India and trualy, every body. I am unreservedly urging you to see this movie. During my workouts this week, I’ll be diving into the true crime podcast Radical, an exploration of the life and murder conviction of Imam Jamil al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, who was prominent in the Black Panther Party and Black Power Movement. And I’ve preordered Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin’s book, Imagination, a manifesto urging us to consider our imaginations as a place of both struggle and of possibility.
And now, for today’s main story: Jon Stewart is returning to The Daily Show as an executive producer and Monday night host. As a longtime executive at The Onion during Stewart’s apotheosis, and as a former executive for The Daily Show as Trevor Noah took over, I have some impassioned thoughts about what his return means for the future of late night, the future of satire, and the future for us all as Trump tries to retake the White House. Let’s dive in.
Jon Stewart returns to the Daily Show anchor chair as a citizen, not just a comedian, and at a time of crisis for the media he lampooned, for political comedy itself, and for the nation. No pressure!
I am selecting this four paragraph excerpt from the full piece so you can get the gist of my perspective. Before this excerpt I explain my multi-decade relationship with the show from viewer to failed correspondent auditioner to producer with Trevor and team. I shared some of the lessons I learned trying to make The Daily Show a more digital first outlet and how that challenge is only greater with our fragmented media environment. Satire works best with a common reference for the underlying format, something I learned well at The Onion.
As a producer on Noah’s version of the show, my focus was to move the experience beyond television. From 2015 to 2016, we eagerly twisted that form to engage people on various social platforms including Snapchat and Twitter. We invited the audience to participate on second screens with interactive, March Madness-style brackets, and created digital assets that viewers could use to make content we incorporated into the show, like this parody Ted Cruz ad. It was a lot of work, and perhaps a bit ahead of its time. The department I created is still around, and I’ve watched from a distance as some of our early work has evolved in ways that keep the show relevant beyond the cable or streaming experience, primarily through online video production.
The other challenge, then and now, is that we live in a time of declining trust—particularly in the media. As a result, audiences are flocking to individual creators and commentators on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Rumble, Twitch, and so on. Perhaps they were moved by an article, agreed with a tweet, or encountered a viral clip that resonated with them. More importantly, they are responding to what feels like a more authentic relationship than being talked at from behind a desk. When Stewart first took over The Daily Show, people were getting their misinformation from Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs. Today they’re listening to Ben Shapiro and Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, Stewart, like the rest of us, is now a multiplatform “creator,” too. He’s more than a show, he’s a brand—our grizzled voice of reason in an increasingly scrambled, scary world. And he brings a large, diverse audience whose trust he has earned over more than two decades. For The Daily Show team, this means opportunity beyond mocking Fox, MSNBC, and CNN and aggressively posting video clips to the internet. The rise of self-appointed news interpreters on social video, the lack of common narrative due to algorithmic silos, the inability to distinguish real media from A.I.-generated misinformation—these are just a few of the new formats available for satire. Will he maintain the anchor conceit, the desk, and the focus on social media distribution, or could the show go further, leaning into less polished, more authentic monologues while speaking to the real sense of horror, and possibility, of the moment?
Not to overstate its potential, but The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 2.0 has the chance to truly affect the vibe of the country, at least for the political center-left, during the least desirable presidential race in memory. Absolutely no one is looking forward to the general election. Barring some change in candidate eligibility, we’re settling in for a rerun of a grueling film we hoped to never watch again. But the stakes feel higher than last time, while our collective energy feels lower. It’s a dangerous combination. Stewart’s task will be to massage our dread each week without undermining how seriously we take the threat of a second Trump administration.
I’ll leave you with the closing thoughts and a continuation of my chat with great comedian Tony Atamanuik:
It’s also possible that not much will change. I asked Tony Atamanuik what he thought of Stewart’s return, and he connected it to a failure to pass the baton to the next generation we see reflected in the Trump-Biden rematch. “I don’t think if you’re trying to get in touch with young people in particular and people of color, [that you need more] white guys spewing to people with varied experiences about what they should do, or what’s right, or how to interpret it,” he told me.
It’s a fair point. There are many other, younger voices speaking to the moment—hi, Amber Ruffin, Akilah Hughes, Ramy Youssef, Roy Wood Jr. and others!—and ultimately, we shouldn’t expect any single person, whether one seeking a return to the presidency or a return to a TV show, to save us. But if they can help us save ourselves and see ourselves, we’ll be much better off. I’m planning to use my own voice much more this year in that mission, and I’ll be rooting for Jon Stewart as he does the same. Welcome back, Jon!
Again, the full piece is here. But I’d honestly urge you to spend your money going to see Origin if you can only do one.
Here’s a bonus clip from the old Onion days.