"Stewart Finds Comic Fodder in News"
Scripps Howard News Service
June 14, 2000
by Terry Morrow

 

NEW YORK — Comic Jon Stewart straddles a chair, leans forward and cups his hands on his chest while cooing: "Please, leave me alone! Please, stop taking my picture!"

Word that Darva Conger, the former Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire? bride, has agreed to do a nude photo spread for a men's magazine inspired the comic's mocking. She has whined about how the media won't leave her alone, only to resurface in yet another interview or another headline-grabbing stunt.

Almost all the 100 spectators in The Daily Show audience are in stitches at Stewart's antics.

For the former stand-up comic, Conger is pure gold, the sort of manufactured celebrity ripe for The Daily Show's brand of media-obsessed satire. She isn't alone, though. The show has picked through Sen. John McCain's sound bites, the U.S. government's prideful reports of the war in Kosovo and the seemingly never-ending tales of Cuban refugee boy Elian Gonzalez.

The show even has former Sen. Bob Dole as its commentator for its skew of the U.S. presidential race called "Indecision 2000."

Stewart, who has been the show's anchorman for a year and a half, says the material to fuel the show's comedy is never in short supply. It isn't so much the news itself that The Daily Show delights in, he says, but the way the media packages it.

"We find a lot of material in ... how the news has been entertainment-ized. That's the crux of where we live," Stewart says. "You'd think news has a higher mandate than entertainment, but, apparently, it doesn't. In May sweeps, you'll get things like: 'Do you know what's growing in your bathroom?' And then you watch it and you see that they found fecal matter in the bathroom.

"It's scare tactics. It's the Doppler radar. It's the mechanism of news that gives us our comedy."

Be certain that The Daily Show (8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on Comedy Central) has no pretense of being a legitimate news organization.

"The news is never funny," Stewart says. "If there is no humor to be wrought, then we have no business doing it."

But the show has made its mark by pretending to be a news-gathering program.

Its team of correspondents are comics who target eccentrics around the country for profiles.

They've spent a day at a professional wrestling school where the headmaster is an 80-year-old woman who still enters the ring; a man who claims God speaks to him directly and reveals the future; and a government employee living in his mother's basement who is owner of the country's largest library of adult movies.

Mocking in their tone, those segments, says Stewart, are "meant to embrace eccentrics." The show finds their subjects through media reports and word-of-mouth.

"In the old days, people would love to talk about their eccentric uncle: 'You got to see him. He lives in a house made of bottles,"' Stewart says.

"I have a great affection for those people. What we are trying to do is not to spit on them but to celebrate them.

"They deserve the same kind of news coverage that we give to anything else. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.

"The problem is, you can't tell (viewers) what their perceptions are. You can only do what you're doing and hope they get it. We don't hit it on the head all the time."

When The Daily Show profiled Pigeon Forge, Tenn.'s growth a few months ago, a correspondent talked to a tourism official who spoke of the serenity in the Great Smoky Mountains. The show inserted the sound of car horns and angry motorists mouthing off at each other.

They also teased Dollywood theme park by showing a traffic jam of guests leaning on walkers.

"I had people call after they saw it ... and (the callers) said they did not do a bad job by us," says Kay Powell, assistant director of tourism for the city of Pigeon Forge. "After I knew what the show was all about, I watched it, and I was kind of jittery about meeting them.

"Their whole thing was to make fun, and I was apprehensive about that when I started watching the show."

In retrospect, Powell thought The Daily Show report was "funny" and "not as bad it could have been."

"I hope people take our reports with good humor," Stewart says of the Pigeon Forge report. "Hey, it's satire, man."

Stewart is serious about his comedic role. His time at the office can stretch out to 12-hour days.

His office, a floor above the Hell's Kitchen studio where the show is taped, has a lived-in look: stacks of papers cover his desk, an opened box of snack cakes sit on top of the papers. Fifteen minutes after he has shot a Daily Show, he sheds his nicely coordinated suit for a sweatshirt and casual pants.

Much of his day is spent writing jokes. Taping for the half-hour show begins at 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays for airing later that night. Shooting can last for an hour and 15 minutes.

When asked about his schedule, he quips, "What's a typical day like? Well, I like to get up at 7:30 and go to Jazzercise. Then I go for a muffin, preferably home-baked. Then, of course, I get home in time for The View. Gotta see the girls every day."

Stewart's real day begins at 10:30 a.m. and usually wraps up at 9 p.m. On this particular day, he'll be at the office until 10 p.m. at least. His wife calls during the interview and wants to know about dinner.

He tells her he'll take her out for dessert to make up for not being home for dinner.

"I don't know if you can see this, but I am chained to this desk," he deadpans after hanging up the phone. "This is like a series of one-night stands. To be honest with you, I am thrilled that I enjoy this. I like coming in to work every day and having a life."

For his time and effort, Stewart can take pleasure in the success of The Daily Show.

It is often one of the cable channel's top-rated shows and is frequently one of TV's most topical programs.

"There is no one here with the illusion that we are a voice of change," Stewart says.

"We are here just to make people laugh."

 

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