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'The Daily Show' returns with jokes and serious talk about war in Israel

Author and political scientist Ian Bremmer, left, speaks with <em>The Daily Show</em> guest host Michael Kosta.
Comedy Central
Author and political scientist Ian Bremmer, left, speaks with The Daily Show guest host Michael Kosta.

Minutes into his first episode as guest host on The Daily Show Monday, correspondent Michael Kosta faced a particularly tough challenge: making comedy out of the biggest news of this past week, Hamas' brutal attack in Israel and war in Gaza.

Rather than start with a super serious monologue like some other hosts — I'll talk about them in a minute — Kosta made a different, and mostly deft, comedy choice. He made fun of knuckleheaded Americans who post terrible takes on social media about what's happening in the region.

"I have friends on Facebook who have the whole Middle East figured out, when I know for a fact they can't even get car insurance," he said. "Hey Joe, don't you have three DUIs? Maybe you should focus on you."

On Monday, The Daily Show became the last major late-night TV show to return with new episodes after the writers strike, ending a five-month hiatus ("I love my family, but not for five months," Kosta joked at the start.) And while the show was a solid return for a comedy voice missing for months, it wasn't quite the triumphant home run I was hoping for.

Channeling his blithe, slightly self-involved persona as a correspondent, Kosta offered a tightly-paced show with some jokes on the headlines, two field pieces from correspondents Jordan Klepper and Desi Lydic, and a conversation with author/political scientist/entrepreneur Ian Bremmer about the turmoil in the Middle East.

Instead of recapping all the news they missed during the strike, the show jumped right in with current events — from suggesting Israelis and Palestinians join together to invade the British, to a sardonic take on Taylor Swift fans dancing and singing during screenings of the pop star's new concert film.

"White people...we can't talk about Black audiences being rowdy in movie theaters ever again...that's over," Kosta cracked. That was a telling joke, because despite how diverse the show's lineup of guest hosts and correspondents have been in the past, Monday's show didn't have a single guest, host or correspondent who wasn't white.

Klepper offered one of his always-entertaining visits to a Donald Trump campaign rally, confusing attendees by noting one was complaining about the high price of groceries after spending $2,000 on Trump merchandise or asking another why Trump put the words "no surrender" on a t-shirt featuring his own mug shot – capturing the moment when the former president surrendered to police.

Fun as it is to watch Klepper unleash his considerable wit on people who don't seem to have thought through their political choices, I wonder if The Daily Show can find something new to say about Trump fans beyond poking fun at how unmoored from logic and steeped in propaganda they seem to be.

Lydic visited a theater to ask Swift fans about the concert film, suggesting they should avoid missing anything by holding off on bathroom breaks until they get a kidney infection (one of the women she was interviewing said "Oh my gosh" at that one.)

But beyond a few snarky jokes and earnest questions of Bremmer — the author said Palestinians had been overlooked for years, even by their allies, creating a pressure cooker of a situation leading to the recent horrific attacks by Hamas — Kosta didn't really try to say much on the horror of the moment. That's a bit of a departure from the mode of modern-day late-night hosts, who often try to contextualize and acknowledge major tragedies in ways old school TV hosts rarely did.

Over the weekend, we saw how effective such commentary can be, if delivered authentically. Pete Davidson talked about learning to go on after his father was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before hosting Saturday Night Live, while John Oliver offered a mix of anger and piercing insight during a somber speechjust before the start of Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight.

"I think many Israelis and Palestinians are feeling justifiable anger right now," Oliver said Sunday. "Not just at Hamas, whose utterly heinous terrorist acts set this week's events in motion, but also at the zealots and extremists across the board who consistently thwarted attempts at peace over the years."

Kosta's turn at The Daily Show host desk offered a good-not-great debut — kicking off a series of guests who will host each week until year's end, including Leslie Jones, Sarah Silverman and Desus Nice. But the episode also felt a bit like watching a giant machine ease back into operation after months lying dormant, taking a moment to rev up.

It'll need to dig a little deeper in future episodes to deliver the kind of incisive commentary we need to meet the absurdity of today's times.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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