Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Return Is a Bad Omen for Late Night

6 minute read

Jon Stewart didn’t create The Daily Show, but he did make it a cultural phenomenon. Before he took the helm, in 1999, Comedy Central’s foray into late night was a straightforward parody of network news that cast Craig Kilborn as the unctuous anchor. Stewart took a drier, rawer, and more politicized (also: angrier) approach, skewering hypocritical politicians and fulminating against the inanity of cable news. Now, following a seven-year run by Trevor Noah and 2023’s revolving door of guest hosts, he’s returning to the show that made him a household name.

As Showtime and MTV Entertainment Studios announced on Wednesday, Stewart will host The Daily Show on Mondays beginning Feb. 12. He’ll also serve as an executive producer, helping to guide the rotating cast of comedians who will fill the anchor’s seat every Tuesday through Thursday. For his fans, who were surely disappointed when his uneven Apple TV+ talk show The Problem With Jon Stewart was abruptly canceled this past October, this is wonderful news. But whether you idolize him or abhor him, Stewart’s return feels like a bad omen for an aging show that captured the early-aughts media zeitgeist like no other—and for late night as a genre.

"Jon Stewart is the voice of our generation," declared Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios head Chris McCarthy while announcing the news. But whose generation is he talking about? Born in 1962, on the baby boomer-Gen X cusp, Stewart made his Daily Show debut at 36, after cutting his teeth on edgy, youth-oriented programs like MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show and Comedy Central’s You Wrote It, You Watch It. His sarcastic humor and anti-Establishment orientation resonated with a young audience that the host himself lightheartedly stereotyped as students, stoners, and slackers. The show’s appeal—especially before blogs cornered the market on snark and during a George W. Bush administration whose absurdity seems in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the Trump years—was in its honest, acerbic analysis of the partisan nightmare unfolding in Washington and a mainstream media that either politely sugarcoated this cataclysm or exploited it for entertainment. No pop-culture icon deserves more credit than Stewart for starting a conversation about the debased state of cable news.

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But nearly a decade after his departure from The Daily Show, Stewart is twice or three times the age of late night’s traditional target demographic. Broadcast hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel aren’t so much younger, you might point out. And age isn’t necessarily correlated with relevance. This is all true. But it was the freshness of Stewart’s voice that made his cable program an effective alternative to the politically cautious Lenos and even Lettermans of the Y2K era. The Daily Show seemed to understand this upon his departure, in 2015. When Noah, a biracial, millennial comedian from South Africa with a notably calm demeanor, became Stewart’s successor at 31, it felt like an acknowledgment that it was time to pass the torch.

In that regard, hiring a fresh face was an act of optimism on the producers’ part, and the show’s persistence for a decade after Stewart left, albeit in somewhat diminished form, heartening. But the TV landscape of 2024 is very different from the TV landscape of 2014 or even 2019. Cable in particular has suffered, as viewers—especially millennials and Gen Z—abandon it in droves for streaming platforms. News isn’t the only category of cable that has seen its audience skew older. Now the broadcast schedules of historically youth-focused channels like MTV are larded with reruns, offering little in the way of appointment television. Tune in to Comedy Central this week, and you’ll be treated to 24/7 marathons of Seinfeld, South Park, and Futurama.

Late night is a similarly sad state of affairs. Audiences have shrunk dramatically during Noah’s tenure, in large part because of cord cutters’ exodus. Streaming services have struggled to get subscribers watching timely talk shows helmed by marquee comedians from Chelsea Handler to Michelle Wolfe. In recent years, hosts including Conan O’Brien, Samantha Bee, Desus and Mero, and James Corden have either seen their shows canceled or left and not been replaced. (One result of this contraction: late night looks whiter and more male than ever.) Axios reported, last year, that ad revenue for the top six late-night shows was down 50% since 2014.

This must have weighed heavily on The Daily Show’s producers’ minds when they elected to spend last year low-key auditioning comedians to replace Noah. Who could possibly justify such a reportedly hefty salary with ratings and earnings both in free fall? For a while, it seemed likely that Daily Show correspondent turned Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj would get the gig. Then a New Yorker profile revealed he was mixing fact with politically charged fiction in his comedy, and the tide turned against him. Despite an impressive roster of guest hosts that included many of the above names, as well as Wanda Sykes, Kal Penn, Sarah Silverman, and fan-favorite correspondent Roy Wood Jr. (who quit the show rather than remain in limbo), a second frontrunner never emerged. Last week, Variety reported there would be no new host.

You can see why the show might see Stewart as a godsend at this precarious moment, when behind-the-scenes flux could thwart any potential for an election-year viewership bump—and why he might be inclined to help save an institution that will almost certainly define his legacy. I have trouble imagining a new host who could, at least initially, attract nearly as much interest as this particular returning host. It seems likely, though, that many who tune in will be Stewart loyalists doing so out of nostalgia. Who knows how quickly that novelty will fade? Yes, it’s encouraging that other comedians will rotate through the studio; here’s hoping the producers take risks on rising talent. Still, for me, hearing that Jon Stewart was coming back to The Daily Show was a bit like hearing about Bob Iger’s return to Disney. My first thought was that something had to be very wrong. Only a show—or a network, or an entertainment monolith, or a TV format—whose glory days were over would be so eager to revisit them.

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