On Monday, Stephen Colbert welcomed the return of his The Late Show audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater for the first time since the pandemic forced late-night hosts to crowd-less, distanced, and at-home productions. Because it had been 460 days since Colbert performed in front of a crowd, the episode had the feeling of a big party: his in-house bandleader Jon Baptiste played a new song, Colbert’s wife Evie briefly appeared onstage to address the crowd, and there was a segment set to “Tequila” which found the host dancing with people in costume as vaccine syringes. Also, like all big celebrations, the show featured Colbert’s old boss Jon Stewart ranting about why COVID-19 was made in a lab, a theory that’s been long championed by President Trump and the right-wing.
Stewart, who is gearing up to debut his new Apple TV+ show The Problem with Jon Stewart and has been tweeting things like “Dasani is the Arbys of water,” was Colbert’s final guest. You would assume, considering the circumstances, that this would be a standard late night TV chat between two friends. Not so: Jon Stewart wanted to talk about the lab leak theory. “I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science,” Stewart said, “Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic...which was more than likely caused by science.”
Part unworkshopped bit, part monologue from Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic, Stewart’s jokes made Colbert visibly uncomfortable. The host asked Stewart if he really believed it’s possible the pandemic started in a lab. “A chance?” Stewart said. “Oh my God, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. You know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab.’ The disease is the same name as the lab. That’s just a little too weird.” Stewart continued the bit. “There’s been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pa. What do you think happened?” he said. “Maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean?” Or it’s the fucking chocolate factory! Maybe that’s it?” (While a joke, it ignores that “virology labs tend to specialize in the viruses around them,” as Vincent Munster, a virologist at Montana’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories pointed out in Nature.)
At one point, Colbert, clearly flustered, joked: “How long have you worked for Sen. Ron Johnson?” Had this segment been filmed without a studio audience peppering the jokes with tempered and slightly awkward laughs, it would’ve been a total trainwreck. But there’s something off about simplifying the extremely complex and still-unsolved origins of the pandemic for bits and ending up parroting the opinion of folks like President Donald Trump that feels off. A March paper from the World Health Organization stated that a possible lab leak was “extremely unlikely,” though a group of 18 scientists published an open letter in Science this May calling for further investigation in both “accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover.”
There’s clearly more research that needs to be done and the origins of the pandemic is not yet a clear-cut case, despite what partisan pundits want you to think. But that didn’t stop lab leak theory adherents and prominent conservatives from jumping on Stewart’s routine. “Jon Stewart is right about the Wuhan lab—even if he's 18 months late,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, in a tweet. “First Bill Maher, now Jon Stewart in a moment of unrestrained honesty,” said former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a frequent target of Stewart’s comedy on The Daily Show. “These are the kind of liberals we used to have in America. They did their own thinking, believed in free speech, [and] took on anyone & everyone.” Even QAnon supporters loved the segment. “[Jon Stewart] is woke and on our side,” said a popular Telegram account in screencaps uncovered by disinformation researcher Mike Rothschild.
Stewart has every right to his opinion, as well as a right to test out material on his buddy’s late night show. But for someone who’s spent so much of his career unpacking the right’s blatant hypocrisy and craven political footballing, he should not be shocked that the same long standing targets of his humor co-opted his bits for their own agenda. While Stewart is a comedian not an epidemiologist or a virologist and he’s reminded critics of this fact throughout his career, if his return to the spotlight becomes fodder for the right to punch left, what good are his jokes?