So here's just another example of how strange
this presidential campaign is. Chris Matthews is being parodied
on "Saturday Night Live," and Jon Stewart is a regular pundit
on the "Today" show and "Larry King Live."
The tagline for Comedy Central's election coverage
-- Indecision 2000 -- has become reality. "That was a joke," says
Stewart. "We had no idea that people were going to run with that."
He had even less of an idea that satirical late-night shows like
"The Daily Show" would be given the somewhat dubious honor of
providing young people with campaign news. One poll, by the Pew
Center, revealed that 47 percent of people between 18 and 29 get
"a lot" of their election news from the late-night shows.
"The key word there," Stewart observes, "is
And told about an MTV study that suggested these
shows might play some role in increasing awareness -- as 75 percent
of those between 18 and 24 could name the Democratic and Republican
presidential candidates without prompting -- Stewart is unamused
"It's four letters," Stewart says, to remember
Gore or Bush.
Yet despite the self-deprecation at the heart
of his comedy, Stewart -- perhaps more than any other observer
of Campaign 2000 -- got at the heart of how our campaigns have
become a theater of the absurd, and mocked the process while mourning
the deterioration of public debate.
Asked to critique the first presidential debate
on "Today," for example, Stewart cringed over the way media analysis
sets the expectations bar before the debate, and then grades the
candidates afterward on how well they met those expectations.
"This isn't Olympics boxing. This is a presidential
race. And the pollsters and even a lot of the analysis has to
ease up," Stewart said. "I mean, what happened was they set up
the expectations in that first debate as, literally, if George
Bush proved he could feed himself, that was presidential. And
if Al Gore blinked, he had warmth. And that's the way they judge
the debate. And they didn't even deal with the fact that when
issues came up, George Bush's proposals were literally, 'I think
Americans are good. And should help themselves.' "
But despite the attention paid to the way comics
covered campaign 2000 this year, Stewart downplays his own influence
and the weirdness of sitting on the "Today" set in a leather jacket
analyzing the campaign. "Now it's weird to be anywhere at 7:30
a.m. That's when I should be fast asleep with my dog," says Stewart,
38, from his Comedy Central office. "But I'm not taken seriously.
The difference between myself and the analysts on a show like
"Today" is when I'm introduced they either say, 'Now for a look
at the lighter side of politics.' Or, 'Comedians have been making
hay with this election, for that take...' It's never Gore's speech
that sets up my segment. It's Jay Leno's joke."
Stewart attributes much of the attention paid
to humorists this year as simply a side effect of 24-hour news
networks desperate for new angles and new commentators just to
fill all that airtime. He doesn't see comics having a political
agenda. ("Many of us are Hamiltonian Federalists," he cracks.)
And he doesn't have time for pundits like Tim Russert who suggest
political humor helps salve the country's partisan wounds.
"These guys have 24 hours to fill. They've got to come up with
something," Stewart says. "... The stress they talk about the
country being under seems to me entirely a media invention. The
media's under stress on this. The politicians can keep going if
they want. I still have to rake my leaves."