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Jon Stewart and John Oliver return, offering voices of outrage and comic relief


This is FRESH AIR. John Oliver returned in February for a new season of his HBO series "Last Week Tonight." Also last month, Jon Stewart, who used to be Oliver's boss and mentor when both worked on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," returned to host "The Daily Show" on Mondays. Both comedians have already drawn attention to themselves with their newest efforts, including the attention of our TV critic David Bianculli, who has this review.


JON STEWART: Welcome to "The Daily Show." My name is Jon Stewart. Now, where was I?


STEWART: I'm excited to be back. I'm very excited.


DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I'm very excited Jon Stewart is back, too. And the same goes for John Oliver, who worked with Stewart as one of the brilliantly funny "Daily Show" correspondents before leaving to start his own late-night current events comedy show on HBO. Jon Stewart hosted Comedy Central's "Daily Show" from 1999 to 2015, stepping down before the 2016 presidential election that saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

John Oliver left "The Daily Show" even before that in 2013, but by the next year, he was hosting his own weekly HBO program, "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." Oliver returned last month to start his 11th season, and Stewart returned to his "Daily Show" home turf on Mondays the same month. Both of them are doing weekly shows now, which allows for a more thoughtful and focused approach. And as far as I'm concerned, they're both unmissable television.

John Oliver marked his return by doing a deep dive on the Supreme Court, especially about the potential for money and other perks to influence specific justices. Honing in on Clarence Thomas, Oliver recounted his litany of free trips, his enthusiasm for his luxury motorcoach and his on-the-record complaints that his job paid too little and demanded too much. But then John Oliver offered Thomas something he said the HBO lawyers had assured him was legal. Oliver would give Thomas a top-of-the-line motorcoach worth $2.4 million and more if Thomas would do one simple thing in return.


JOHN OLIVER: Clarence Thomas is arguably the most consequential justice on the court right now. And he's never really seemed to like the job. He said, it's not worth doing for the grief. So what if he could keep the luxury perks that he clearly enjoys without having to endure all of that grief? Well, I think there might actually be a way to do that because, Justice Thomas, we have a special offer for you tonight.


OLIVER: We are prepared to offer you $1 million a year for the rest of your life if you simply agree to leave the Supreme Court immediately and never come back.


OLIVER: It is that simple. Just sign this contract. Resign, and the money is all yours. This is not a joke. If you watch our show, you know jokes aren't really our thing.


OLIVER: This is real.

BIANCULLI: On the most recent show Sunday night, Oliver repeated his offer. He's done outrageous, unforgettable things like this for years. And he and his staff have racked up many, many Emmys in the process. Jon Stewart used to rack up those same Emmys. And on Stewart's very first show back, he caused a stir when he addressed head on the age of this year's presumptive presidential candidates.


STEWART: One thing we know for certain is this. We have two candidates who are chronologically outside the norm of anyone who has run for the presidency in this country in the history of this country. They are the oldest people ever to run for president, breaking by only four years the record that they set.


BIANCULLI: That piece infuriated a lot of people on both sides. The next week, Stewart took dead aim at an old nemesis, Tucker Carlson, whom Stewart had famously eviscerated during a guest appearance on Carlson's "Crossfire" on CNN in 2004. That was 20 years ago. But the way Stewart replayed bits of Carlson's recent puff piece report from Moscow and his interview with Putin was just as deadly, just as funny and just as noteworthy.


STEWART: Professor, tell me, what is step one in delivering world-class fealty to power?


TUCKER CARLSON: Here's why we're doing it. First, because it's our job. We're in journalism.

STEWART: Lie about what your job is.


CARLSON: We're in journalism. Our duty is to inform people.

STEWART: Lie about what your duty is.


BIANCULLI: Then last week, Stewart opened the show by noting how much flak he'd gotten on social media and from critics for his first two programs.


STEWART: This is...


STEWART: ...Number three. The third episode. This is my third episode. The first two - very controversial, a lot of discourse around it, a lot of carping back and forth, a lot of anger, a lot of commentary. Tonight, I'm done with it.

BIANCULLI: The part of that show that got me, though, was the ending, when Jon Stewart took a moment of personal privilege to note the passing of his family dog, Dipper. The three-legged rescue pit bull was one of the original dogs to roam the offices of "The Daily Show" when Stewart ran things there. And Stewart broke down when talking about him.


STEWART: Dipper passed away yesterday. He was ready. He was tired. But I wasn't. And the family - we were all together. Thank goodness we were all with him. But, boy, my wish for you is one day, you find that dog, that one dog. It just - it's the best.

BIANCULLI: Jon Stewart and John Oliver - they're just the best two. They're the best at what they do. And with their different styles, they serve in these truly turbulent times as both comic relief and voices of outrage.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver is on Sunday nights on HBO. And Jon Stewart is back on "The Daily Show" Monday nights through the 2024 election. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Joe Biden's final campaign. Our guest will be The New Yorker's Evan Osnos. Osnos recently interviewed Biden for his article about Biden's accomplishments and failures as president, his current face-off with Trump and the fears of many voters that Biden is too old for the job. Osnos wrote a book about Biden in 2020. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON-ERIK KELLSO'S "JUST LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.