"Daily Show an Addictive Nightly Habit"
The Vancouver Sun
July 7, 2001
by Alex Strachan


With its brilliant send-up of cable newscasts and full-of-hot-gas talk shows, The Daily Show is being hailed as one of the best things to happen to TV humour since the SCTV gang closed up shop

The Daily Show bills itself as "the most important TV program ever!" which, in case you need to know, is irony (defined by The Oxford Dictionary as "the expression of meaning, usually humorous or sarcastic, by use of words normally conveying opposite meaning"). Even so, most dedicated Daily Show viewers must have been vexed ("vexed," Daily host Jon Stewart might say, is a word that doesn't get used nearly enough these days) when Time this week named Stewart best talk-show host.

The accompanying essay by Dick Cavett, a throwback to the old school of broadcasting (which is to say he's English, cultured, civilized and about the last person you would imagine watching TV, let alone an obscure show that runs late at night on the U.S. cable channel Comedy Central), sheds little insight into Stewart's screwy appeal. It doesn't take long, though, no more than a week of learning how to work the VCR, to see why The Daily Show has won so many converts with its parade of fake news and pseudo-journalists.

Vanity Fair arts columnist James Wolcott did a more thorough job singing the praises of Stewart in the magazine's May issue. He hailed The Daily Show as an incisive spoof of cable newscasts, with their judgmental blabbermouths and militantly ill-informed experts-on-everything. ("Presenting the most talented posse of poker-faced goofballs since the cast of SCTV parted
company, The Daily Show may resemble a fun house," Wolcott wrote, "but it's doing the work of a hundred media-study programs, and making it look easy.") Don't think for a second that The Daily Show is a nightly tirade, in other words. It is more funny than angry and Stewart himself has the aw-shucks appeal of a boy next door who's whipsaw-smart but doesn't always care to show it.

The Daily Show takes runs at everything from the five most important words in news gathering ("according to a new study ...") and fictitious special-interest groups like WOE (Women Opposed to Everything) to media buzzspeak ("A group of select paleontologists broke out the fancy bolo ties yesterday ...") and faux "Point/Counterpoint" commentators like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, who spar on a semi-regular segment called "Even Ste(ph)en" over everything from day care for dogs ("Great, just what we need: a pack of privileged dogs who can now look down on inner-city dogs") and diplomatic relations with China ("by the way, Steven, this little number was called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Human Rights") to legal rights for animals ("Stephen, I think it's clear that you've approached this verdict not as much from a legal analyst's perspective but more as a cat person"). In a verbal spat over the need for a patients' bill of rights, Colbert launched into a lengthy tirade ("This will finally shift the balance of power away from large, bureaucratic, soulless institutions and give it to law firms, and anyone who feels differently is a Nazi"), only to have Carell shoot back with his own tirade of mixed metaphors ("Well, Stephen, if being a Nazi is wrong, I don't want to be right; this legislation is a prescription for a recipe for disaster").

It's when Stewart sits down for his nightly four-minute chat sessions with celebrity guests, however, that his fast-as-a-cat verbal reflexes come into play. Listening politely this week while Jet Li rambled on, Stewart suddenly interjected: "Here's what's interesting about that -- didn't catch any of it, don't know what you're talking about." This was an interview that began with Stewart asking, "Where are you from, Beijing? Are your films as big over there as they are over here? ... Do they hate us? Because we like them. We don't want to be fighting any more. You know George Bush, our president? He's a retarded guy. Don't worry about him. Please, could you let them know?"

The next night, facing Alec Baldwin -- a political activist whose liberal leanings lie somewhere to the left of Martin Sheen, and who reputedly said he would leave the U.S. if Bush were ever elected president -- Stewart took a different tack: "Don't think there's any other place that's safe by leaving the country. He's everywhere, Bush."

Celebrities used to the "So, what's your new movie about?" line of questioning often become bewildered and disoriented when faced with Stewart's throws out of left field. To Baldwin's credit, he played Stewart at his own game. "When you lean back that way," Baldwin told him, "you pull me way out of my shot. When you lean back -- it's very rude."

"Watch this," Stewart said. "I'm going to have you go from regular actor to leading man," and slouched down in his seat. "Look at you now: it's Giant Alec."

Pop culture today is mired in narcissism, so it's somewhat refreshing to have at least one Daily Show spin off in unexpected directions while examining issues like media and advertising. ("According to a new study conducted at Iowa State University, people who watch programs with sexual or violent content are more likely to forget the commercials that air during those programs than people who watch more sedate fare, except of course when commercials are aimed directly at the much sought-after angry/horny demographic.") The show tackles such overworked themes as violence in entertainment ("Scientists (have) found that people who viewed just one Carrot Top 1-800-CALL-COLLECT commercial were able to think of nothing but violence") while wondering in the same breath exactly who it is that selects the programming at the family-oriented Pax network ("A previous study ... proved useful in determining the limits of mankind's tolerance for Remington Steele reruns."). Hey, if you're going to embrace the worst of American culture, do it right. If The Daily Show keeps this up, it may even give irony a good name again.


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Copyright © 2001 The Vancouver Sun. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Isaih for the article.

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