Last week, the Ed Sullivan Theater welcomed back a live audience for the first in-person taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Colbert claimed the number one spot in the return of live entertainment in the famous neighborhood in Manhattan stating, "We are the first show back up on Broadway. Suck it, 'Lion King'!"
But it was Jon Stewart, his long-time friend and the former host of The Daily Show, who stirred up some unexpected controversy as the first guest back on the show. He started the moment by expressing his appreciation for the advances and wonders of science, stating, “I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science. Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic”—a short pause punctuated his turn into controversial territory with the corollary— “which was more than likely caused by science.”
With that, Colbert visibly scrambled into a careful crisis control mode, taking a sip from his mug as Stewart highlighted the fact that the laboratory in Wuhan researching the novel coronavirus bears the same name as the virus that originated in Wuhan. “Oh my god,” he exclaimed, “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. That’s just a little too weird!"
Stewart gave the example of a hypothetical outbreak of ‘chocolatey goodness’ near Hershey, Pennsylvania and how obvious an avenue of inquiry it would be to suspect the chocolate factory as the origin of such an incident.
In his exposition, Stewart effectively teased out the essence of the situation that comedy so often can reveal. The bit is funny because at some level, everyone has to admit that the logic follows. One can agree with the lab leak hypothesis or disagree, but any honest and open-minded observer can see the humor in trying to deny the linkages entirely as a topic banished into political non-discussion.
To respond to Stewart, Colbert tried, again and again, to lightly remind everyone of the safely accepted protocol, that Dr. Fauci and the NIH are looking into the laboratory origin of COVID-19, which has now bled into the mainstream realm of possibility.
While Colbert has unfortunately deviated from the comedic brilliance of his scathingly critical material from the Colbert Report into a blandly palatable liberal talk show that ruffles no feathers, Stewart proves his continued willingness to call out the obvious contexts and contradictions laid out in the accepted public viewpoint.
During the year of the pandemic, the lab leak theory was roundly dismissed by the establishment media and officials as a conspiracy theory despite the publications of work by journalists and scientists pulling the threads and tracing the decision-making processes that may have led to the emergence of the virus from Wuhan. It was revealed that the origin theory of the virus coming from the wet markets was dismissed in the first months of the global pandemic, but the story persisted in the popular narrative worldwide. Then, there were warnings of inadequate precautions with the handling of the sensitive research materials at the Wuhan laboratory.
There had been hesitation among experts and commentators to discuss the potential laboratory origins of the virus due to fear of stoking racist sentiments toward Chinese people, especially as President Donald Trump repeatedly used the terms ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘Kung Flu.’ Setting aside the ridiculous political atmosphere that rose from the origin and naming debate, it should be obvious that it would be more racist to imply that the virus came from the dirty Chinese and their deplorable eating habits.
In the weeks prior to Stewart’s comments on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the U.S. government called for investigations into the possibility of the lab leak with increasing scrutiny of Dr. Anthony Fauci due to released emails regarding the virus. The idea that was once the topic of conspiracy theorists had quickly broken into the popular consciousness as possibly legitimate.
On the one hand, Jon Stewart deserves a great deal of credit for executing his comedic commentary against the grain of the mainstream narrative. Indeed, this was always what was so masterful about his work on The Daily Show in his criticisms of all the absurdities of the American political scene. On the other hand, this moment comes right at the cusp of the general acceptance of the lab leak story. Now, it seems comparatively safe to float the idea, though perhaps not as forcefully as Stewart did to a surprised Colbert. The really brave individuals were those who came out and discussed it when it was still taboo.
Only time will tell what the accepted narrative will be if more information emerges, but the opening of the arena of debate may be the path to the truth. Stewart’s delivery through the vehicle of comedy makes the grim affair just a little easier to swallow.