— The first night of Jon Stewart's return as host of "The Daily Show" — or "A Daily Show," as he said it's being called for the duration of the writers' strike — was not promising.
Stewart did not kill time, but he also seemed to be treading water as he moved from segment to segment. Most of those segments were focused on the writers' strike, and Stewart made fun of both the studios and the Writers Guild of America as he explored various aspects of their conflict. That focus lacked the show's usual life and spark, and the writers' absence, it seemed, had a deep impact.
The second night, however, didn't seem any different than a regular, albeit unremarkable, episode. Proving he was back to form, Stewart even self-deprecatingly mocked his own performance Monday. "Last night's show was through the roof, and tonight, for those of you that really enjoyed that, I have a special surprise. Tonight's show, we're going to focus purely on intellectual property and tort law," he said.
That was followed by a transition to "elections, baby," as Stewart said, and he slipped quickly and comfortably back into doing what he does best, excoriating politicians by using different video clips of them to illustrate their own hypocrisy and stupidity. Later, during the interview segment, Stewart sparred with former Bush speechwriter David Frum with his trademark lighthearted aggressiveness.
None of the somber tone of Monday's show was present, and only occasional references to the strike and the lack of writers made the episode seem different from a pre-strike one. "We miss our writers terribly, and we hope they get back here soon," Stewart said, sounding entirely genuine. At another point, he joked, "Here's the problem: Without the writers, any movie reference that I make is going to be from the '80s."
From night to night, there was a dramatic transition, and while "The Daily Show" seemed to struggle without writers upon its initial return, the second episode suggested it might not really need them, or at least will be able to survive until they return.
The only thing really missing from "The Daily Show" were the segments with its flock of correspondents, leaving Stewart with no one to play off. As if on cue, John Oliver showed up during Tuesday's second segment, allegedly reporting from "The Daily Show"'s own picketers. (Among those walking the line was the correspondent himself as the series mocked its own use of green screens yet again).
What was most interesting was how Oliver introduced his segment.
"Before we begin, let me make one thing perfectly clear," Oliver told Stewart. "I am just talking to you. This is not writing. I have absolutely no idea how the sentence I am currently saying is going to finish. When and if it does, I can only hope it makes some kind of ceramic pineapple."
A funny line, but clearly one that someone had to write, or at least plan out. Like that sentence, a lot of material had to have been written by someone or some people who did a decent, if not spectacular, job. On Monday's "Daily Show," one of the on-screen graphics continuously said, "Space Reserved for Clever Pun." So who wrote that clever line?
The same was true on "The Colbert Report." While Stephen Colbert showed off his empty teleprompters on Monday, he read from one during at least part of his Tuesday night show, joking about that but also actually reading words off a teleprompter. He pretended to find a pre-strike script ("This is a legal script!"), and then delivered material while an on-screen graphic explained, "script completed Oct. 29, 2007."
Whether or not that was true, what's clear is that both Colbert and Stewart aren't going to wait out the strike killing time, ad-libbing, or interviewing guests alone.
Considering that both shows are typically drenched in irony and satire, often making points by embracing absurd positions, perhaps their insistence that they are not being written is a tacit admission that someone's writing some things.
Stewart certainly didn't hide his irritation Monday that the Writers Guild wouldn't negotiate a deal with his series, which was unionized just two years ago. (Reports say that's because his show is not owned by an individual production company, like David Letterman's, but Viacom-owned Comedy Central — although the WGA did unionize "The Daily Show" independently.)
If their shows aren't being written in the same way as they were pre-strike, with a group of people brainstorming ideas and polishing material, they are being planned and, on some level, written. Had the writers been working this week, both shows would have probably been different, but however the shows came together on Tuesday, it actually worked.
Adequate writing and extremely smooth execution may combine to make both shows watchable, but what remains to be seen is whether that's enough to give us the satirical analysis and biting wit that we desperately need during the next 11 months.