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You Might Not Like What Jon Stewart Has to Tell You

They, however, have developed different expectations since 2015. During Stewart’s years, some comedians dinged “The Daily Show” for relying on “clapter,” the dutiful response to a joke that is more virtuous than funny. But since then late-night has become a clapter factory, especially over the Trump era, when sharing political takedowns became treated as an act of resistance.

In the George W. Bush era, Stewart stood out from late-night hosts like Jay Leno, who labored never to take political sides. Now he might stand out from people like his friend and colleague Stephen Colbert, whose audience never has to doubt which side he’s on. Late-night comedy audiences are increasingly used to being told what they want to hear, which is to say, what they believe other people need to hear.

Viewers accustomed to clapter may not find Stewart’s digs at President Biden much to claugh at. Even if they believe the age issue is a political problem, they may adopt the social-media stance that pointing it out “is [clap emoji] not [clap emoji] helping.”

But Stewart’s stance is not surprising if you’ve watched him over his years away from the Comedy Central chair. He appeared on Colbert’s return to the studio after its pandemic absence and raised the lab-leak theory of Covid, an uncomfortable subject for liberal-leaning viewers who associated it with former President Trump’s demagoguing. And while he has no love lost for Donald Trump — who once tweeted the Jewish Stewart’s birth name at him, saying, “He should be proud of his heritage!” — he also pushed against accusations that Trump supporters were universally racist.

If Stewart is an old-school American liberal (as opposed to “left” or “progressive”), he’s also vulnerable to the old-school critique of liberals: that he’s too broad-minded to take his own side in an argument. He seems uncomfortable with the idea of apocalyptic political stakes, as when Minton Beddoes worried about President Biden being “the only person between us and the return of Donald Trump.” “You said that like ‘Voldemort,’” Stewart joked.

Of course, the nine months until the election is, as Stewart pointed out, a very, very long time. Presumably he can’t fill it all with “The candidates are so old that” jokes. In his first show, he established that he didn’t want to be captive to his most vehement viewers’ expectations of what he should say. We’ll see going forward if he’s willing to tell them what he really thinks, even at the risk that they might agree with him.

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