The Late Show With Stephen Colbert returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Monday night for the first time since last March, when the show taped a few eerie, audience-free episodes before reinventing itself as an at-home production. It should have been a triumphant return to normalcy, and during Colbert’s opening monologue, which saw the host dancing to “Tequila” accompanied by a chorus line dressed up as vaccine syringes, it was. Then Colbert brought out his first guest, his former Daily Show boss Jon Stewart, and things quickly got weird. Stewart wanted to talk about the lab leak theory, the idea that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, first spread to humans through a laboratory accident instead of a natural leap from animals to humans.
Over the course of a strange segment in which Colbert occasionally pushed back at his guest’s ideas, the former Daily Show host described the pandemic as “more than likely caused by science,” then told an extended series of jokes premised on the idea that the existence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology made it more likely than not that the virus spread to humans via a lab accident. That’s a theory that first entered public discourse during an all-out attempt by right-wingers to distract from Donald Trump’s catastrophic failure to fight the pandemic by deflecting blame to China, and given that it was promoted by people with zero credibility like Trump himself or Mike Pompeo, who claimed there was “enormous evidence” the virus originated in a lab in China without offering any, the lab leak theory was originally received extremely skeptically. Since then, although there’s been no new evidence to suggest the lab leak theory is correct, it’s gotten a lot of news coverage recently, as scientists clarify that a lab accident is not an outright impossibility, just extremely unlikely. (It’s important to clarify here that there’s considerable difference between “an accident at a virology lab” and “the deliberate release of a genetically engineered bioweapon,” which is much, much less likely; early proponents of the theory sometimes conflated the two.) Most scientists continue to believe that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins.
So what does Jon Stewart believe? It’s incongruous, to say the least, to see the onetime scourge of the Bush administration pushing the same ideas as Mike Pompeo unless it’s some kind of a joke, and some Stewart fans on Twitter have indeed concluded he was doing a bit. It’s true that Stewart’s appearance is a stand-up-style riff, but it feels more like jokes about airline food—where the audience is meant to understand that the comedian may be exaggerating but sincerely believes airline food is terrible—than it does a Colbert Report–style joke, where the comedian puts forward a comically stupid argument for something they don’t agree with. In the Bush years, Stewart’s comedy often leaned on jokes in which he pointed out that Republicans were not just telling lies but obvious, stupid lies. Unless he’s doing an extremely subtle parody of himself, that’s the mode he was operating in when Colbert allowed that there was a “chance” the lab leak theory had some basis in fact:
A chance? Oh, my God. “There’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China—what do we do?” “Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan Novel Respiratory Coronavirus Lab.” The disease is the same name as the lab. … “There’s been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened?” “Oh, I don’t know, maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean. Or it’s the fucking chocolate factory! Maybe that’s it!”
After a commercial break, Stewart returned for a segment that suggested he perhaps went further with his theories than CBS was willing to put on the air. Colbert offers Stewart, seated in the guest chair, the option to “go on,” and then there’s an abrupt cut to Stewart, now standing, sitting back down again while asking Colbert, “Can I say this about science?” as though he had been told that whatever he’d just said was not going to air. As with Stewart’s jokes, if the editing is a bit, it’s an extremely subtle one, and not the kind of thing The Late Show usually gets up to. Stewart followed that up with a series of jokes about scientific arrogance, jokes that were both entirely compatible with his earlier statements about the lab leak theory and gave no indication he was being insincere about any of it:
Naturally, those who believe the lab leak theory in some way exonerates Trump—it doesn’t—immediately embraced Stewart as a brave truth-teller, with a few going on to claim that his theories would have been flagged as misinformation on social media earlier in the pandemic:
It’s just more evidence that elevating late-night comedians to trusted political commentators—something that happened primarily because journalists in the aughts treated bad-faith nonsense with kid gloves while comedians were willing to call bullshit—was a wonderful development that will never have any harmful long-term consequences. You got it: I’m saying that as a bit.