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
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
"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.