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Intelligence at the root of ‘The Problem,’ Jon Stewart’s funny, thought-provoking new series

The former ‘Daily Show’ host is taking a deep dive into a new subject every two weeks on Apple TV+

On Thursday’s premiere of “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” the host examines a common practice of the U.S military that causes grave damage to troops.
Apple

The problem with Jon Stewart is he signed off as host of “The Daily Show” in 2015, at a time when we needed him the most. Not that Stewart didn’t deserve to take a break from the grind of a four-times-a-week show after 16 Emmy-spangled years and not that Trevor Noah hasn’t been a worthy successor — but it would have been awesome to hear Stewart’s wry and sardonic and fact-fueled takes on all the madness that has transpired in our world over the last half-dozen years.

Here’s the good news headline: Stewart is returning to the current-affairs milieu with the Apple TV+ series “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” a multiple-season, single-issue show in which Stewart (backed by an enormously talented team of writers and producers) will introduce a major topic on each episode and then do a deep-dive into the subject. We start with a Producers’ Meeting in which Stewart and senior staffers kick around ideas and share stories; continue with Stewart seated at a desk in a loft-like studio, delivering a monologue to a live audience; break for the occasional short comedic filmed bits, and continue with Stewart talking to guests who have been impacted by the issue of the day.

If it all sounds a bit like a grad school lecture delivered by the hippest and funniest prof on campus, well, that’s kind of what we’re getting, and it’s vintage Jon Stewart: thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, clever, occasionally a bit too pleased with itself but on balance, pretty flippin’ great, only they don’t say “flippin’ ” on this show cause you can swear on Apple TV+.

“The Problem With Jon Stewart” plays like a particularly compelling segment on “60 Minutes” crossed with a late-night comedy talk show. In Episode One, titled “War,” Stewart shines a harsh spotlight on the military’s use of Burn Pits, i.e., the common practice in Iraq and Afghanistan of digging huge holes next to bases and burning chemical drums, vehicles, medical waste, food waste, amputated body parts, tires, tarps, batteries and mountains of human waste. Pour on the jet fuel, light it up — and toxic, black plumes of smoke would be inhaled by the soldiers on the bases.

“In this divided country, the one thing we can agree on, is we love our troops,” says Stewart. “We support our troops — unless they actually need support.” We see evidence of the grave damage caused to veterans who have been exposed to burn pits and learn some 72% of related claims filed with the VA have been denied, for reasons of, well, money. Money and bull----. “I was retired from the Army at 27 years old,” says Sgt. Isiah James, who says he could once run five miles but now can hardly breathe at night. “Burn pits are our generation’s Agent Orange.”

Heavy stuff — but Stewart has the uncanny ability to combine crusading journalism and social outrage with, for example, a hilarious swipe at YouTube star Jake Paul. And in an interview with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, who seems to sincerely want to cut through the red tape denying so many veterans their health benefits, Stewart cracks, “You’re saying digging a hole and burning everything in it with jet fuel might not be the answer in a modern society.”

In Episode Two, titled “Freedom,” Stewart exposes the hypocrisy of those self-proclaimed patriots who say they won’t wear masks or get vaccinated because “freedom,” and how the anti-mask, anti-vax crowd loves to equate health mandates with Hitler. In a segment titled “What’s More Hitler!,” Stewart asks, “What’s more Hitler: COVID, or COVID prevention methods?” and notes, “COVID has killed nearly 5 million people. Masks, nobody! Vaccines, I don’t know, three. Let’s say a hundred, I’ll spot you a thousand. COVID is the Hitler on this one.”

We also hear from the great actor-comedian-singer-activist Jenifer Lewis, who is given the title of “Oppression Mentor” and has this to say to those who claim having to wear a mask equals oppression: “Tip One: Have you all lost your goddamn minds? Shut the f--- up! 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. We’re trying to sell you a mask, not sell you, you stupid mother-------s.”

Standing ovation.

At the conclusion of the first episode, Stewart says, “Thank you for watching, though my guess is you didn’t, you’re probably just going to look at aggregated clips of it, somewhere on YouTube, where you pirate ‘Ted Lasso.’ You don’t even know how to get Apple TV, do you? You don’t even know!”

Ah, but we do know, Jon, we do. We know where to find you and we’re happy to have you back.