He left us in really good hands.
That may be the first conclusion one can make about the summertime hiatus Daily Show host Jon Stewart took this year, allowing time for him to direct his first film, Rosewater.
Stewart returns to the show at 11 tonight, presumably refreshed creatively, retaking a nightly program ably guest hosted by writer/correspondent John Oliver. The brash Brit did so well, in fact, that some fans — not me — have been calling for Oliver to stay in the chair.
But as much as I dug Oliver's frenetic energy and the nightly fictional updates on what Stewart was up to (the bit about him being on a Rumspringa, complete with digitally added Amish beard on a roller coaster, was my favorite gag), it's time for the master to return.
And here's a quick list of stuff I think we learned during his summer vacation.
Lesson 1: More correspondent stuff from the field. Much as I love the jokes from behind the desk or when they use green screens to put Samantha Bee in the middle of the rush to cover the royal baby, the Daily Show really sings when it uses real-life political absurdities to point out just how messed up our system really is. Bee and fellow correspondent Jessica Williams getting focus groups of black and white people to talk about race; Aasif Mandvi challenging Florida Gov. Rick Scott to pee in a cup over the state's drug testing of welfare recipients; Jason Jones examining the government's absurd fight over raisin production equal comedy gold. And would it be possible to get old man Stewart out on really special stories? Even Brian Williams gets out of the studio occasionally.
Lesson 2: John Oliver needs an expanded role. Oliver, who also writes for the show, often seemed the show's ace, even before his stellar co-hosting gig this summer. Here's hoping the show uses him more often as a guest host, perhaps on Fridays to avoid reruns or on weeks when the show might normally go dark, giving us more Daily Show overall. I'm sure Stewart and the producers are wary of watering down the show by doing too many episodes. But Oliver-hosted editions could give the program a chance to try new, more radical ideas and serve as a farm team for new writers, correspondents and material.
Lesson 3: The Daily Show is a finely tuned machine, so use it. One reason Oliver was able to step in so seamlessly for Stewart was because the material never seemed to waver. The writers kept serving up amazing jokes and scenarios for Oliver to knock out of the park, even while their big boss was away. So perhaps that can allow the show to give some other correspondents a chance to shine, too. Bee has been on the program for a decade; what would a Bee-hosted Daily Show look like? What if alums like Steve Carell, Ed Helms or Wyatt Cenac came back to guest host for a night or a week? If Stewart would like more time to pursue other creative outlets, perhaps the show could develop a farm team of guest hosts in the way Johnny Carson did; that stable of Tonight Show fill-ins gave us David Letterman, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Joan Rivers, by the way. Imagine who might step up if the Daily Show revived that tradition?
Lesson 4: Stewart's voice is sorely needed. It's been a shame that the Daily Show was on break over the past two weeks, as America kind of lost its mind over racial issues and crime, the anniversary of the March on Washington, slaughter of civilians in Syria, the debut of an American version of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera and Miley Cyrus twerking her way into the country's heart.
Can't wait to see what the big man makes of it all when he takes back the big chair.