As a bearded Jon Stewart stalked the hulking John Cena with a metal folding chair Sunday night at World Wrestling Entertainment’s SummerSlam in Brooklyn, one of the announcers asked in mock horror: "What is Jon Stewart doing?"
Good question. And one that could just as easily have been asked the following evening when he was body-slammed by John Cena on "Monday Night Raw."
Only Stewart knows why he picked the WWE events for his first major appearances since wrapping his 16-year-plus run in the rollicking ring known as "The Daily Show" on Aug. 6. Perhaps the choice represents a wry commentary on the outsized expectations for whatever he chooses as his next act. Or maybe he just couldn't resist another opportunity to indulge in his love of professional wrestling.
Either way, Stewart's grappling with his future is a main event of comedy.
He's not the only former late night TV titan drawing attention for post-hosting appearances. David Letterman, sporting a similar retirement beard, unexpectedly joined Steve Martin and Martin Short on-stage in San Antonio last month and delivered a Top 10 list of “Interesting Facts About Donald Trump” (No. 7: “He wants to build a wall? How about building the wall around that thing on his head?”).
Letterman has hinted he'll be back in the public eye in some form. His soon-to-debut successor, Stephen Colbert recently told Howard Stern he'd like to have Letterman on as a guest on “Late Show.” Since leaving “The Tonight Show” for good last year, Jay Leno's been busy with stand-up appearances and his upcoming auto-focused CNBC show, “Jay Leno’s Garage.”
The former hosts’ still-emerging paths diverge from that of late night king Johnny Carson, who went into near-hermit-hood after his 30-year run on "The Tonight Show," save for a couple cameos on Letterman's CBS program.
Stewart's case is different from his late night peers' in some key ways. At age 52, he's more than a decade younger that Letterman and Leno. And charting the course of Stewart's future, thanks to his young, devoted and digitally engaged audience, is a public participation sport: A Change.org petition calling for him to moderate one of the presidential debates has drawn nearly 300,000 supporters since being posted late last week.
News of the online drafting effort overshadowed Comedy Central’s fun and, um, cheeky first "Daily Show" promo featuring Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah. The petition also underscored Stewart's unique place in the popular culture, and the lines he's blurred over the years as a comic, White House visitor, commentator of sorts (see his in-person 2004 “Crossfire” takedown), political performance artist (his and Colbert’s 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”) and restless entertainment polymath (his fact-based 2014 film, "Rosewater”).
Stewart's extracurricular activities also, of course, have included forays into professional wrestling. The hyperbolic WWE announcers on Sunday, no doubt to Stewart's delight, declared him a “criminal” with “no business being in” the ring as he slammed Cena in the mid-section with the chair.
Where Stewart belongs, in the short term and otherwise, is up to nobody but him. We're just waiting and watching for his next match.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.