You don’t even have to be a wrestling fan to be aware that something’s been brewing between WWE star Seth Rollins and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart. A few weeks ago, Rollins publicly remarked that he would be a better host of TDS than Stewart. In response, Stewart cut a (pretty spot-on) promo. Then, Rollins showed up in the Daily Show studio to interrupt the Moment of Zen, and last night, Stewart appeared on WWE’s Raw (which took place in Newark) to defend himself. This certainly isn’t the first time that Raw has had a special guest show up (recent months have featured everyone from Kathie Lee and Hoda to Grumpy Cat to Larry the Cable Guy) but none of those appearances were memorable. Stewart, however, was a funny, affable, and all-in guest in a well-written segment, proving that WWE’s problem with guest hosts has less to do with their product and than with the enthusiasm of the celebrity in question.
The problem with so many of these guest-host segments is that the stars are only there to promote something that may be interesting to WWE fans — such as when Aaron Paul and his boundless enthusiasm drove Dolph Ziggler to the ring to promote Need for Speed — and aren’t necessarily invested in the program. Jon Stewart is different: He is clearly a wrestling fan (he even attended the Money in the Bank PPV), is knowledgeable of what’s going on both on screen and behind the scenes, and knows the jargon and specifics of wrestling (again, just check out his promo). He’s also legitimately funny on his own, rather than painfully trying to read lines from WWE writers or trying too hard to fit into their world (see: Kathie Lee and Hoda). But mostly: Stewart is having fun, and he’s visibly stoked to be part of the program.
The segment struck gold in so many ways. Rollins hosted his own version of The Daily Show (the set appeared in the middle of the ring), cracking heel jokes about how gross New Jersey is — and even getting in a pretty funny dig about how few people saw Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater. But the real fun started when Stewart interrupted — with The Daily Show theme as his entrance music and its logo up on the TitanTron — and took a long walk to the ring, alternating between excitedly high-fiving fans in the audience and jokingly playing up his back pain.
Stewart’s appearance worked because he actually knew what he was doing: He knew how to get the crowd to pop (defending New Jersey by remarking on the state’s toughness and joking that the Curb Stomp, one of Rollins’ finishers, is how New Jersey residents “greet each other in the morning”), and how to insult both Rollins’ credibility (an ongoing complaint on Raw) and his outfit, saying Rollins looked like a “SWAT team stripper with Lady Gaga’s hair” — a pretty apt description. Most importantly, he demonstrated extensive knowledge of WWE by bringing up past wrestlers who “earned” their shots: Bruno Sammartino, Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Stewart had the crowd actually enthused for once, a complete 180 from the Grumpy Cat segment, where audible boos were heard throughout.
Stewart remained funny the entire time. When Rollins is temporarily distracted by Randy Orton, Stewart goes for — and lands — a low blow on Rollins before fleeing the ring. Backstage, he keeps up the schtick in his interview with Renee Young, nervously looking around the shady hallways, fearing that Rollins will retaliate, and quickly bolting off screen.
The success of the segment is the result of WWE intelligently employing a guest who enjoys and respects the show (and who is respected by wrestling fans), who can easily fit into that world (a tough feat for short, nerdy Stewart, who hilariously fumbles through the ropes while entering the ring), and who appeared on Raw because he wanted to, not because he had to shill a product or talk up a movie release. WWE Raw can be very, very funny (on purpose, even!) when executed correctly, so it’s a shame that it so often falls on its face instead. But last night’s segment hit all the right beats (and groins), and proved that WWE still has its sense of humor; it just needs to choose its guest hosts carefully.