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Jon Stewart Takes On Serious Problems With Humor In New Show

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new talk show with a familiar host drops on Apple TV Plus today. It's called "The Problem With Jon Stewart," and one of the first things he does is crack a joke about how old he looks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PROBLEM WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART: I really wanted to address the elephant in the room. This is what I look like now.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Very few people would be happy looking like an anti-smoking poster.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: This is the first program like this Stewart has hosted since he left "The Daily Show" in 2015, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching.

Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: All right. Fans have been hoping for Stewart to return since he left "The Daily Show." So what are they going to see on his new program?

DEGGANS: Well, each episode is a long look at a single subject. It focuses on the people at the heart of that issue and then tries to offer some solutions. And he's dropping one episode every couple weeks, which is a little different from what he did on a news satire like "The Daily Show." But there is a lot here that's going to feel familiar to people who watch that program and others inspired by it like "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" or "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee."

Critics got a look at two episodes to watch in advance. The first one was about efforts by veterans to get the government to recognize that these cancers and some serious ailments that they were having, they might be connected to these toxic fumes that they had to breathe from burning garbage and waste near military bases where they served overseas.

SHAPIRO: This reminds me of the lobbying Stewart did when he was on "The Daily Show" around 9/11 first responders getting sick. I mean, he's always been a guy who kind of straddles serious discussion of current events with comedy. Are we seeing the same kind of thing here?

DEGGANS: For sure. And he's been an advocate on this issue before he did this episode. And it got really serious on the show when he had a roundtable discussion with veterans and their spouses. And viewers heard from Wesley Black, who's a former National Guardsman who had Stage 4 colon cancer. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PROBLEM WITH JON STEWART")

WESLEY BLACK: At this point, it's too late for me, and I have accepted that. If I can prevent just one family from going through what I'm going through right now, I can kneel before my maker and say I did one good thing, and I advocated for those that didn't know.

SHAPIRO: That sounds really heavy, so tell us about how he weaves comedy into that.

DEGGANS: Well, Stewart kind of outlines each episode's topic with a series of jokes, kind of like he did in his old "Daily Show" monologues. There's some pre-taped comedy bits between program segments, and in one, Stewart shows what goes into a burn pit like he's putting together a YouTube cooking video. And the show finds its groove a bit more, I think, in the second episode, which talks about freedom. It notes the problems when Americans prize their personal freedoms over sacrificing for the common good like wearing masks or taking a vaccine in a pandemic. In one great segment, "Blackish" co-star Jenifer Lewis plays a, quote, "oppression mentor" who has tough words for people who think that they're oppressed by mask and vaccine mandates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PROBLEM WITH JON STEWART")

JENIFER LEWIS: Black people have been dealing with oppression for 400 years, and y'all couldn't last 10 months. They picked cotton, you just have to wear it.

SHAPIRO: There is no one like Jenifer Lewis.

DEGGANS: There is no one like Jenifer Lewis.

SHAPIRO: So as you mentioned, this lands in a crowded landscape of contemporary-current-event-comedy-hybrid shows, and people are going to be comparing it to "The Daily Show." How do you think it measures up?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, in many ways, this show feels like familiar ground, so people who were expecting him to come up with something completely new will probably be disappointed. But it's clear that the program is evolving. It usually takes time for talk shows to find their voice. So I'm interested to see how he's going to handle these big ideas that he's trying to explore. And any show that could put Jon Stewart's smarts and comedy to work, chewing over the major issues of our time, I'm going to consider that worthy viewing.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eric Deggans, thanks a lot.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.