"In the News Today: Wry Observations and Snide Remarks"
The New York Times
August 1, 2000
by Julie Salamon


When George W. Bush announced that Dick Cheney would be his running mate, Jon Stewart drily observed:

"Cheney has opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, busing and abortion, but he is in favor of prayer in schools. So he should really help Bush open up the Republican Party to the much-sought-after white conservative vote."

This week, beginning tonight, the anchor of Comedy Central's news parody, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," is taking his frisky brand of political commentary to the Republican Convention. Mr. Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist, and this may prove a distinct advantage over the network anchors, who must report the events as they occur, no matter how dull.

At a time when politicians have become cautious and bland, political commentary is having a heyday, especially late at night, with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Mr. Stewart, whose show is on at 11 p.m. (with several rebroadcasts). In recent months, "The Daily Show" has been attracting a lot of media attention with its election coverage, especially since signing on Bob Dole and Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, as convention commentators. But for many people -- especially teenage boys -- the program has also become a regular source of news and a way to deconstruct daily headlines with fashionable irony.

The network says that its cockeyed coverage attracts about 500,000 viewers per show, or two million during its four-night week, a sizable audience for cable.

Though its attention is now on politics, "The Daily Show" lampoons science, culture and business as well. For example, its writers recently jumped on the megadeal in which Nabisco, a food company, is being acquired by Philip Morris, a food company that is also a cigarette company.

With a studied look of disbelief and using the warning label on a package of cigarettes as a prop, Mr. Stewart described the deal as combining Nabisco, "the people who bring you Oreos, Ritz crackers and Cream of Wheat," and Philip Morris, "the people who bring you low birth weight, infant mortality and, oh, the old favorite, emphysema."

Because "The Daily Show" is far more enjoyable when compared with the traditional newscasts, it could actually encourage young people to watch the nightly news -- if only to make fun of it. Certainly the network news programs could use the jolt. Look what's advertised on them: painkillers, laxatives, denture adhesives, cholesterol medications, weedkiller and Chevrolets. "The Daily Show" is sponsored by cool cars, cell phones and movies -- and its big corporate sponsors for its "Indecision 2000" election coverage include Yahoo, Volkswagen and Snapple. At its best, Mr. Stewart's show offers a satiric interpretation of events that touches on larger truths and even larger fears. At its worst, it's silly and crude (though some of the most sophomoric bits are, admittedly, the funniest, like a recent raucous feature on the Queen Mother).

Compare "The Daily Show" coverage of the human genome project with coverage by the network news programs. Tom Brokaw began the NBC report like this: "A day for the ages at the White House today, that's how President Clinton described it."

Over on ABC, Kevin Newman, sitting in for Peter Jennings, said, "It isn't often we can begin with something like this: the main story is a day for the ages."

Dan Rather at CBS was more circumspect. After declaring that "the recipe for humankind" will "revolutionize the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease," he cautioned that genetic mapping "also raises questions about what is medically possible, desirable and ethical."

Mr. Stewart, though, reacted the way many of us did upon encountering the mysterious visuals that accompanied the genome story on every broadcast (including "The Daily Show") -- indecipherable computer images, acres of test vials, weird helixes and symbols. "Scientists crack the human genetic code," he announced, "and yes, it will be used for pure evil."

Mr. Stewart, 37, doesn't have a squared-off anchor physique or an anchor's height (he's 5-foot-7) or a deep anchor voice, but he has fine comic timing (which includes a good repertory of eye rolls and suppressed giggles) and lots of self-deprecating charm. He projects no need to appear unassailable.

Like the network anchors, however, he has a book out, and these books flag the difference between them and him. The Big Three have chosen portentous topics like "The Century" (Peter Jennings), "The Greatest Generation" (Tom Brokaw) and "People of the Century: One Hundred Men and Women Who Shaped the Last One Hundred Years" (Dan Rather). Mr. Stewart's book, a collection of his essays, is called "Naked Pictures of Famous People."

When Middle East peace talks broke down, Mr. Stewart announced the news like this: "Good news for war buffs. The Middle East peace talks have ended in failure." Further into the broadcast, he explained, "It soon became apparent that Barak was from Mars and Arafat was from Venus." Of course, Mr. Stewart is spared the gruesome necessities that go along with being a real television journalist. The terrible Concorde crash that dominated the network news last week was a nonstory for "The Daily Show." Some news events can't be mocked.

Even more than its "Saturday Night Live" model, "The Daily Show" is structured basically like a regular newscast, with a half hour of headline news, features and commentary. The features aim to be far more absurd than the networks -- like a segment by Vance De Generes (comedian Ellen's brother) on "The Blackout of 2000," when Manhattan's Upper East Side experienced 20 minutes of reduced power, which actually forced some people to turn off their air-conditioners and reset their VCR's.

In another feature, "The Daily Show" used the same video that ABC News did in its account of a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn that is fighting to keep custody of a pet monkey named Cookie. (The animal is a Cercopithecus diana monkey, which is an endangered species.) But while ABC's Bill Blakemore offered a sympathetic yet balanced report, Mr. Stewart didn't hide his appreciation of the situation's absurdity. "Experts across the board support the state's position," he said, "saying Cookie is a rare beast of the wild who deserves to live as nature intended -- in the Detroit Zoo."

Still, the show's humorists are hard pressed to match the eccentric wit of ABC's Robert Krulwich, whose excellent report on the human genome uncovered the amazing overlap between humans and other species -- not just chimpanzees, as expected, but cows, roosters and baker's yeast.

"The Daily Show" is also a talk show, with a live audience and with a regular spot reserved for guests, most often actors, musicians or writers on promotional tour. In these segments, Mr. Stewart's humor is more piquant than acid, and he unashamedly fawns over his sexy female guests while revealing embarrassing details about his own childhood and dating life (or former dating life -- he married recently). He was even nice and respectful to Joe Eszterhas and let him read from his nasty book "American Rhapsody." Still, Mr. Stewart did greet the shaggy, overweight, unbuttoned guest with a gentle barb. "This looks like a parole meeting," he said.

It's no small feat to pull off this eclectic vision of breaking news, which relies on film clips and graphics to tell its stories. In addition to its crew of field reporters and commentators, "The Daily Show" has a large backstage contingent of writers, producers and technicians. The show is sending 94 people to the Philadelphia convention. But casting Mr. Stewart, who also writes much of his own material, as the anchor 18 months ago -- replacing Craig Kilborn -- has proved to be the crucial ingredient to the four-year-old program's success. Ratings have increased 43 percent since he took over.

Certainly his convention coverage won't be predictable. On the day of the vice presidential announcement, Mr. Stewart showed a video clip in which Mr. Bush explained his choice of Mr. Cheney, who had been running the vice presidential screening process.

"I was impressed by the thoughtful and thorough way he approached his mission," Mr. Bush said emotionally, "and then I realized the person who was best qualified to be my vice presidential nominee was working by my side."

At that Mr. Stewart turned to the camera. "And Bush added," he said earnestly, "'and once [Cheney] took off his glasses and let his hair down, I also realized he was beautiful.' " Who knows, maybe the Republican Convention can be fun.


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