The Late Show returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater stage on Monday, with the show’s first live audience in more than a year greeting Stephen Colbert (and his pants) with the sort of rapturous response born of a pandemic’s-worth of pent-up relief. The cheers kept on rolling for Colbert’s first in-studio guest, old pal and former boss, Jon Stewart, who took his time in hugging both Colbert and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste before sitting down, briefly. Stewart, clearly hyped up to be in front of humans once again, spent much of the ensuing two segments leaping up to express his own enthusiasm and gratitude (Stewart thanks Colbert and Dave Chappelle for “sustaining” him during the last year-and-a-half), and, to Colbert’s obvious surprise, what sounded an awful lot like an endorsement of one of the most controversial conspiracy theories out there.
Starting out by praising the indefatigable efforts of “science” in so quickly developing the life-saving COVID vaccines that have “eased the suffering of this pandemic,” Stewart then went on to suggest that there may be something to the “COVID was created in a Chinese lab” chatter, after all. It was clearly something of a shock to Colbert, who, at one point, reached for his coffee mug to load up a never-delivered spit take in the aghast Stewart’s face. He also later asked Stewart how long he’s been working for conspiracy kook, seditionist dimwit, and guy banned from YouTube for spreading coronavirus misinformation, Republican Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI). But while Stewart was doing an extended bit, it wasn’t entirely a bit, as the former Daily Show host ranted animatedly about the, to him, suspicious coincidence that “the novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China” originated in the location of the “Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab.”
To be fair, Stewart didn’t get all racist with his conspiracy theory, as Donald Trump and his GOP minions so enthusiastically and damagingly did and continue to do. Instead, Stewart’s target was more science itself, saying of scientists, “Science is incredible, but they don’t know when to stop.” Colbert pushed back against his guest and friend, noting that it’s also a weird coincidence that “the Daytona Beach Spring Break herpes lab” would be located in the Spring Break and STD hotspot of Daytona Beach, and suggesting that the Wuhan lab might be located where it is because that region has a history of multiple outbreaks of novel coronavirus. (Colbert also noted that there are experts better suited to study the widely disputed lab theory.) Stewart kept on rolling, though, citing science’s long and checkered history of fiddling with impossibly dangerous things without due regard for potential consequences, and bringing up the whole splitting the atom incident, along with the fact that scientists once decided to thaw out and study a frozen sample of the 1918 pandemic virus.
Fair point. As a Patton Oswalt bit once put it, science is “all about coulda, not shoulda.” And, as Stewart expressed his love and respect for scientists and the noble work they routinely perform in enhancing human life and knowledge, he also concluded, “They are going to kill us all,” suggesting that the final words ever spoken on this Earth will be a scientist’s musing, “Huh, it worked.” In practice on stage, however, Stewart’s overlong bit felt more than a bit hacky, honestly, relying as it did on flimsy cause-and-effect premise work (which Colbert, to his credit, kept pointing out). And none of that takes into account how Stewart’s stand-up will be seized upon by the more conspiracy-minded (and their all-too-ready racist brethren) to back up their unfounded claims that COVID-19—which China has contained more effectively than the U.S., because of that pesky science—was created as some sort of super-secret Chinese bio-weapon. (Checking Twitter and, yup, the jackasses are already braying, cheering Stewart for “owning the libs,” and whatnot.) Stewart himself mugged right into Colbert’s camera at one point to twitchingly confess, “I’ve been alone for so long.” Maybe, Jon.