The Daily Show reunion: Stephen Colbert plays second fiddle to Jon Stewart
10th May 2017
Despite not being on television regularly these days, Jon Stewart wields an enormous amount of cultural capital in the television landscape. How else would an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert supposedly devoted to Colbert’s 20 years in late night television become practically all about Stewart? Stewart seemed to make a fuss about dropping out of the limelight after he retired from The Daily Show in 2015, opening an animal sanctuary in New Jersey and growing a scruffy I’ beard. (It’s an old classic.
) But he hasn’t actually gone that far — in fact, he’s been on The Late Show eight times in less than two years, and even swung by his old stomping grounds on Comedy Central. Tuesday night’s Late Show was billed and promoted heavily as a Daily Show reunion, with teaser photos appearing in the afternoon of Colbert and Stewart with four other former Daily Show correspondents — Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, John Oliver, and Rob Corddry — on a set. This wasn’t actually that huge of a get everyone but Helms has already appeared on Colbert’s Late Show, and Stewart seems to pop up on Bee’s Full Frontal and Oliver’s Last Week Tonight whenever he’s beckoned.
It’s likely that the real reason for the hype was May sweeps, that special time of year when TV shows go to increase their ratings so they can raise advertising rates for the following season. Stewart has been on The Late Show several times before but never as a guest, so the network wouldn’t have seen ratings bumps from those appearances. Stewart’s legacy can be felt strongly in the direction Colbert has taken The Late Show since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Much has been made of his move in the direction, and how it has correlated with an increase in ratings over his main competition, the less politically minded Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And indeed, Colbert’s monologue felt cut from the same cloth as most of Stewart old Daily Show segments — a mix of liberal outrage, pop culture references, and a dash of righteousness — and it’s clearly working for his audience. Whether the rest of the reunion was a success is harder to judge.
The cold open sketch featured Stewart and Colbert delivering lunch to The Daily Show’s new host, Trevor Noah, in a sketch with very little internal logic. The main sketch involved all six of them “flashing back” to Colbert’s last day at The Daily Show, wearing wildly inappropriate costumes for 2005 and just spewing old references at each other. It had the vibe of a sketch written quickly and barely rehearsed.
All of that was more or less fine shows are machines which very rarely have time for perfection. Before the actual reunion could happen, Stewart appeared as Colbert’s first guest. The two discussed Bill O’Reilly and James Comey, as well as Stewart’s lack of an outlet to discuss the crazy news of the day.
“There are nights where I find myself impotently shouting into the abyss,” Stewart conceded, “which, if you think about it, wasn’t that different from what I did on a nightly basis. ” And then, finally, the reunion. Spread out over two couches on a set that Colbert said looked “like a morning show” the six of them reflected on their time as Daily Show correspondents and the crazy field pieces they were forced to do.
Perhaps a longer, better developed conversation occurred in the studio — the television version was stilted and choppily edited. It was hard to judge just how much camaraderie there was after all, some of these people were simply colleagues who hadn’t worked together in more than a decade. But the focused returned again and again to Stewart.
At points, it felt like the group naturally gravitated towards Stewart as the host at other times, he seemed to demand the spotlight. Either way, it left Colbert somewhat marginalized on his own show. Colbert may have been doing late night television for two decades, but it seems he’ll always play second fiddle to Stewart.
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