HBO Sets 2 Jon Stewart Specials and Defends Its Controversial Modern-Day Slavery Drama

True Detective Season 3 and a Deadwood movie are also in the works

Stewart will host the annual Night of Stars autism benefit on the network, and star in his first stand-up special in 21 years. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Two months after pulling the plug on its long-in-the-works animated project with Jon Stewart, HBO has set two specials with the former Daily Show host.

Stewart will appear in his first stand-up special in 21 years for the network and will also host the annual Night of Too Many Stars benefit for Next for Autism, which will air live on Nov. 18. Both announcements were made today at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in L.A.

The specials are part of an overall deal that the network has with Stewart. A big portion of that deal was supposed to be an animated series, but HBO and Stewart announced in May that they had scrapped the project.

Stewart’s stand-up return comes at a time when HBO has stepped away from those types of comedy specials, unwilling to compete with Netflix, which is paying comedians (and former HBO mainstays) like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle as much as $20 million per special.

Stand-up specials used to be “a relatively low-cost way to be in the cultural conversation,” but that has changed thanks to Netflix, HBO programming president Casey Bloys told reporters. Given that stand-up specials represent “less than 1 percent” of subscribers’ streaming on the HBO Go and HBO Now platforms, “it’s hard for me to justify paying exorbitant prices,” he said. “We’ll get back in when prices make sense.”

During his executive session with reporters, Bloys also defended last week’s controversial announcement that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the white showrunners of Game of Thrones, will next be tackling Confederate, a new drama set in an alternate America, where slavery continues in the modern-day South.

The backlash was fierce, and while Bloys stood by the project, he admitted the network had bungled the announcement. Revealing such a “sensitive” subject via a press release “was misguided on our part,” he said. While his team “knew the idea would be controversial,” they overlooked the fact that the general public would not have had the benefit of nuanced conversations that execs had with producers.

A better course of action would have been to have the show’s four executive producers—which include African-American husband and wife Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman—sit down with journalists to discuss the project, as they did belatedly with Vulture last week after the controversy exploded.

“We have a long history at HBO of betting on our talent,” Bloys said. “We’re going to stand behind them. My hope is people will judge the actual material as opposed to what it could be or should be or might be.” He continued, “These four writers are at the top of their game, and this is what they feel passionate about … so I’m going to bet on that.”

Bloys admitted that Confederate is dealing with “weapons-grade material,” but noted that “if you can get it right, there is a real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America.”

Before Benioff and Weiss can focus on Confederate, they have one more season of Game of Thrones to complete. Bloys said the showrunners still haven’t determined whether the final season will be ready for 2018 or 2019. (The programming president also confirmed that none of the multiple Game of Thrones spinoffs in development at the network will feature any of the characters from the current series.)

In other network news, Bloys revealed that a third season of True Detective is close to coming to fruition. “I have read five scripts, and I think they’re terrific,” said Bloys, adding that Moonlight star (and recent Oscar winner) Mahershala Ali has been signed to star in the new season, and the search is on for a director. “I’m very impressed and excited about what I’ve read.”

An even longer-gestating project is also moving forward: a movie that would continue its critically acclaimed drama Deadwood, which ended unexpectedly in 2006, one season earlier than creator David Milch had expected. Bloys said he has read Milch’s script for a Deadwood movie. “I wanted a script that would stand on its own” and appeal to both fans of the drama and those who had never seen an episode, Bloys said. “[Milch] totally delivered on that.”

If the network can settle on “a budget that makes sense for us,” find a director and reassemble the cast, “we’re inclined to do it,” Bloys said of the Deadwood follow-up.

Still up in the air is a potential second season of last year’s miniseries The Night Of. Its creators are still talking about ideas for continuing the series.

Bloys, who was named programming president shortly before last summer’s press tour, said he’s been working to evolve HBO’s drama slate, which needed more variation. He’s aiming for a better mix of family, genre and tent-pole series.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.