The Daily Show host, fresh from a summer spent directing a movie over seas, came back to the comedy news show Tuesday with a round of cheers, a fresh clean shave, and the news that the U.S. was gearing up to attack Syria over chemical weapons use. “Taking military action against a Middle East regime!” he said. “It’s like I never left!”
It was indeed almost like he never left, but that’s not all bad news. Stewart also returned to a show that had proven, under John Oliver’s guest-hosting, that it could survive without him and take him back without missing a snarky step. Oliver, the longtime Daily Show correspondent, oversaw a summer of Snowden and selfies, maintaining the Stewart show’s format with a slight British inflection.
When Oliver began guest-hosting in June, I had hoped that the show and its staff would use the summer as a chance to take some chances and try some experiments in format that they normally wouldn’t. After 14 years, they could use an enforced change and a temporary host “to play with what [the show] could become in the future.”
They didn’t take my advice, probably with good reason. Instead, the staff used the summer for a different kind of experiment: not to see how a new host might change The Daily Show, but whether The Daily Show could remain the same show even if it had to use a different host. Oliver’s sharp delivery contrasts a bit with Stewart’s oy-gevalt exasperation, but the stand-in immediately and more than capably kept the show going the way fans expect and love it. (He even developed a signature bit or two, like the Carlos Danger move he modeled for Stewart as a curtain call.)
The summer revealed above all that the star of The Daily Show is, more than any one person, The Daily Show itself–the format, the writing, the ability to absorb 24 hours of electronic media and craft it into a no-b.s. smackdown. After all these years with Stewart, it’s become an institution, but in a good way: it has a voice, a rhythm, and an intelligence of its own that it can sustain even without the guy who crafted that voice, and Stewart acknowledged that feat on his return: “I clearly have the finest staff and crew in all of television.”
That’s not to take anything away from Stewart, though. It was Stewart, together with his writers, who re-created The Daily Show when he took it over from Craig Kilborn, changing it from a font of apolitical snark to a show that could express a point, even outrage.
And Tuesday, Stewart easily slipped back into that funny-serious role, transitioning from a profane rant over the Syrian war drums to an interview with UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative Andrew Harper. “You do grim, yet incredibly important work,” Stewart told Harper. Likewise, sir, likewise.