With the abrupt firing of Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes on Thursday, it was easy to rush through — or read through — all the appraisals of what he meant to television and politics. Easy to overlook a few, too: Notably, one Jon Stewart, erstwhile host of “The Daily Show” who spent the better part of 16 years shuffling through FNC clips to fuel — or rather scorch — a comedic message about the devaluation of journalism in the age of an Ailes-style presentation where punditry often subsumed fairness and balance.
Easy to overlook until Thursday night, anyway. Ladies and gentlemen, your former “Daily Show” host, who returned to the screen for one night only on “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to deliver a solid 13-minute screed denouncing Ailes, FNC host Sean Hannity and the entire body of Republican delegates assembled in Cleveland for their national convention.
It was classic Stewart, or a classic rewind — the same old tricks, the same old style, except sartorially. Before introducing his surprise guest, Colbert — who himself spent a decade channeling a certain Fox News host — lamented or rather deadpanned that it gave him “no pleasure” to announce Ailes’ firing, but also wondered whom he could share the news with.
“Jimmy,” he asked his stage director, “could you cut the camera off me for a minute ...” Cut away, and then wild applause.
Cut back, Stewart pops up from under the desk, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his retirement beard neatly trimmed. (Stewart as disheveled hermit living in the woods was part of an extended shtick on Monday night, too.)
After outfitted with a jacket and clip-on tie, Stewart then got down to business. There was a quick succession of sharp jabs at GOP nominee Donald Trump, RNC speaker and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the tenor of the entire convention (“scaring the bejesus out of everybody”), before landing a succession of blows on one of the targets he worked over so relentlessly for years — Hannity, whom he declined to name except to call “Lumpy.”
A series of clips followed, then it all wrapped with a sustained impassioned run-on that excoriated Hannity, Fox News, the GOP delegates and — by association — the very man who brought him back to television for this one last howl at the moon: Roger Ailes.
Funny? What else? But above all, this was a reminder that Fox News — cable television news’ most potent force of the last decade — once had an effective critic in Stewart, who was preoccupied with Fox, and often infuriated by it, too. He left “The Daily Show” — he often explained — because this obsession had finally taken a toll on his sanity. But Thursday’s return was yet another reminder that some old routines — this one for example — never get old.
Stewart will join HBO sometime this fall for online (and presumably on-air) short-form commentary. But he won’t have Ailes to kick around anymore. This most improbable of comedy teams — the Ailes/Stewart one — is done forever. Best check out Thursday’s return engagement to see what it was once all about.