More than Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, the return of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart seemed rife with peril. After all, the guy sits at a desk for half-an hour doing largely scripted material. Without his striking writers, and apparently being barred from writing himself, as he's a member of the Writers' Guild, what exactly would he do?
Stewart's first night back since the beginning of the strike, Jan. 7, was a little painful. The host fell into the trap of thinking everyone was as preoccupied with strike as he was, and he used a segment with Cornell University labor relations professor Ronald Seeber to vent his frustrations at not being able to strike a David Letterman-esque deal to get his writers back to work.
But better than anyone else in television, Stewart knows when he's bad, and judging by the opening of his second show, a lot of people also told him as much after that first show back.
The past two nights, he has been much more on his game, not only at being funny, but also at picking apart the news of the day.
Two prime examples:
~ On the Republican side of Saturday night's ABC News/Facebook debate, Mitt Romney claimed to have not called John McCain's immigration plan amnesty in a commercial. Stewart ran the segment of the commercial where McCain's plan was indeed called amnesty and then the portion of the commercial where Romney says he approved the message. "This is the CEO candidate?" Stewart asked, in his trademark mock exasperation.
~ We got a tres Daily Show video montage of reporters and pundits talking about Hillary Clinton's so-called breakdown in New Hampshire as if she had dissolved into tears, rended her garments and attempted ritual suicide. Then we saw the actual footage, which essentially amounted to Clinton getting a little choked up for a minute.
What made that really funny was waking up the next morning and flipping on the Today show where, once again, they were talking about Hillary's emotional display, and whether it may have contributed to her "surprising" win in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
Which brings us to last night, when Stewart had John Zogby of Zogby International on to talk about how his and other polls could have been so wrong, predicting a double-digit victory for Barack Obama over Clinton. Stewart got a good laugh when Zogby talked about Obama's Iowa "bump" and asked if Obama really got a "bump" because, after all, the only evidence of said "bump" was the polls, which were wrong.
After a day of watching journalists on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere falling all over themselves to explain why they got the Democratic race in New Hampshire so wrong, Stewart was the one who got to the heart of the matter asking Zogby, somewhat rhetorically, "Has the data overwhelmed the idea of what it is we're supposed to be discussing."
Out of the mouth of a comedian . . .
After days of coverage of supposed break downs and botched poll results, Stewart is the one to essentially ask, could these talking heads discuss a serious issue if they tried? Saturday night's debate featured refreshing discussion of the issues by candidates from both parties. But the subsequent coverage was all horse race, boxing match analysis with the biggest attention to the issues being poll results that say -- surprise! -- it really is the economy, stupid.
So after a misstep, it was more than great to have Stewart and his follow-up, Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report, back. No, they aren't riding the buses and talking to the candidates daily. But, aside from a few merciful exceptions in the TV news market, such as Charlie Rose, they're the only ones who seem to be taking this election seriously. They just happen to be very funny, too.