Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart return.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart return.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart return.

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Jan. 8 2008 5:54 PM

Strike Two

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart return.

Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert

Monday night's episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart—or, as the host restyled it in tribute to a writing staff still out on strike, A Daily Show—hit its peak before Stewart had uttered a word. Five days after David Letterman and Conan O'Brien bushily returned to the late-night airwaves with two months' growth on their faces, Comedy Central's camera pulled in to discover a disconcerting patch of hair above the bridge of Stewart's nose. In his own display of "hirsute solidarity" with the Writers Guild, Stewart said, he had let his unibrow blossom. He removed the bit of fur posthaste, which was a bit disappointing. America deserves political satire now, and the strike leaves Stewart in a poor position to provide it.

The matter is not simply that his writers were on the picket line on a primary eve that saw both a formerly fat former governor of Arkansas introduce a sandwich called the Huckaburger and Mike Gravel, the presently zany former governor of Alaska, advise an audience at Phillips Exeter Academy to smoke marijuana, as if boarding-school students needed such encouragement. (Not to mention those finer instances of campaign-trail silliness requiring a satirist's eye for proper ogling.) It's that Stewart—as both a liberal crossing a picket line and a jester whose persona is increasingly earnest—is on the defensive, a difficult stance to jeer from.

Jon Stewart 
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Jon Stewart
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Thus, of necessity, last night's show opened with 12 minutes of monologue devoted almost exclusively to the labor dispute between the the Writers Guild of America and the AMPTP ("the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers," as Stewart explained, "or NAMBLA"). That was a worthy zinger—what it lacked in cleverness it compensated for in its lively viciousness—but when Stewart really started to bite at the hand that feeds his staff not quite enough, the mood turned flat and dreary. It seems likely that the viewers most sympathetic to labor were the ones who balked the most at being presented with this comedic oatmeal. The dynamic became more pronounced during Stewart's chat with guest Ron Seeber, a labor-relations professor whose views I suspect I would entirely agree with had I not totally zoned out while he expressed them. The irony is that Stewart produced one of the night's better jokes, and easily its riskiest, in mocking the ponderousness of the "speechless" campaign, the series of black-and-white Web videos wherein WGA-supporting Hollywood actors appear, sans dialogue, in clips more solemn than Dorothea Lange photos. A graphic juxtaposed a representative image from the campaign with an old AIDS-activism slogan: "Silence = Death."

The gang at The Colbert Report had an easier time of things, of course. Safely ensconced in character—"I have always been anti-labor," the host harangued. "This is completely politically consistent"—Stephen Colbert was free to be "himself" and support the cause while sticking to his shtick. In a conversation with the control room about the absence of text in the teleprompters, Colbert expressed an alternate view of how the technology works: "This little magic box right here, it reads my thoughts and lays them on the screen." There is no need to preach when you're playing a buffoon.

Colbert devoted perhaps half of his airtime to riffing on the issues of the day—unpacking the results of the Iowa caucus, for instance, and inviting Andrew Sullivan around to deliver a précis of his Atlantic cover story on Barack Obama. The show's writing did lack a certain polish: After running a montage of the Democratic candidates stating promises of change, change, change at last Saturday's debate, Colbert introduced Sullivan as a man who "believes that Barack Obama can really break a buck." This is clearly inferior to a line I saw lodged in the comments section of a blog at nytimes.com: "The Democratic Platform for '08: 'Can anyone break a twenty?' " But, in the absence of writers, what do you expect? The key issue in the strike, by the way, is that the writers don't earn royalties on downloads and Web broadcasts, which means that the cruelest joke in that half-hour of Colbert was to be found at the very end of the show, in a bit of text accompanying the credits. It read, "Available on iTunes."

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.