"Jon Stewart holds mirror to the media"
Toronto Sun
November 18, 2001
by Antonia Zerbisias


JON STEWART insists he's not cynical.

"I cannot believe you are more cynical than I am and you're Canadian!" he accuses me on the line from Manhattan. "As a matter of fact, I don't think I'm cynical at all."

Hard to believe of the guy who seems to have a smirk Krazy Glued to his face each and every time he opens The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

His "fake news show" kind of a cross between Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" and CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, only with correspondents airs Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. on the Comedy Network.

Just as it demonstrated last year during the U.S. presidential race, a contest that it presciently dubbed "Indecision 2001" even before one chad was left hanging, The Daily Show is, in the wake of Sept.11, serving up the sharpest, funniest, edgiest media and cultural criticism on U.S. TV.

Sad, when you think about it. For all the blah-blah and blather on CNN, MSNBC, the Sunday morning newscasts and the primetime newsmagazines, rarely is a jaundiced eye cast upon the media themselves.

But, just the other night, Stewart launched into a tirade about CNN's 24/7 coverage of "America's New War," or "America Fights Back," "The Spirit Of America" or whatever the news channel is calling the current crisis.

Taking issue with how retired army general after former national security council adviser after bioterrorism expert after airline safety professor gets face time to fulminate and prognosticate in the absence of hard facts, Stewart quoted a CNN anchor asking: "Would you care to speculate on the assumptions we've just heard?"

"What are you doing to us?" Stewart cried. "You're supposed to be helping us! The whole thing is making me nuts!"

No wonder The Daily Show won an Emmy earlier this month for "Outstanding Writing For a Variety, Music or Comedy Program," beating out bigger, richer network efforts such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and The Late Show With David Letterman.

As for political criticism, more often than not, most TV offers little more than partisan political screamfests.

But The Daily Show?

Consider what it has done in the past couple of months.

While Leno has been giving us his Dancing Itos recycled as Dancing Bin Ladens, while Letterman has been bemoaning the fact he's never invited on Oprah and while Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher seems to have gone off the deep end to prove his patriotism after almost being shut down in September, The Daily Show has been comedically covering events under the banner "America Freaks Out."

Fake news correspondents Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Mo Rocca and others have attacked everything from Americans' unwillingness to make sacrifices to the packaging and the marketing of the war to beard styles in Kabul.

Nothing and nobody are safe. Not even the president.

Two weeks ago, Stewart mocked how George W. Bush looked in the polka dot pyjamas he donned in China.

Thursday night, he had Bush riding around his ranch in a pickup with Russian president Vladimir Putin singing Jackson Browne's "Take It Easy."

All this despite how Stewart, when his show returned after being off the air in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings, said "subliminable" was no longer a punchline.

"One day it will become that again, and Lord willing, it will become that again because that means we have ridden out the storm," he said.

Are we there yet?

"I think when they return to politics as opposed to statesmanship, that will be when we go back to making political jokes," he says. "We're going with the fact that Kabul has been liberated as opposed to the fact that (Republican Senator) Trent Lott wants to hold up $10 billion in spending to New York City. There's only so much you can do with that, comedy-wise."

In any case, Stewart says that he and his writing team are still reacting to the terrorist attacks and all the other calamitous events since.

"Right now we're not freaking out so much," Stewart explains. "Now we've just been pulverized into shell-shocked submission and apathetic agreement that we are in peril."

But, no matter how it looks to viewers, The Daily Show does not set out to be wicked, Stewart insists.

"Our comedy is not based in naughtiness. It's based in viscera," he says. "It's based in how we're feeling in a real way and then we just try and turn it into funny because it probably wouldn't be that entertaining to sit for half an hour watching me yell.

"We don't set out to be naughty."

Well, that's not completely true, I insist, particularly when it comes to making Canada jokes. The Daily Show just can't seem to resist making fun of us. For example, last month, when anthrax was the big news, Stewart accused Canada of suffering from "Bland-thrax."

Last Thursday, when The Daily Show was funning with the hyperama that is Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, it showed a clip of Sigourney Weaver saying "It would be wonderful if there was a magical world next to ours that we can't see."

Cut to Stewart looking straight to camera: "There is a magical world next to ours: I call it Canada."

This kind of thing goes on with alarming, for American TV, regularity.

"I enjoy Canada," says Stewart who has made movies in Toronto and hosted last year's Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. "I think you make fine neighbours to the north. It's certainly better than having Mexico living in our attic."

Of course, it's easy to poke fun at us. But when will Stewart be able to return to "business as usual," the down and dirty business of lampooning everyone and everything, no holds barred?

"I'm not sure what that means: This is business as usual," he says. "We're looking at the world and trying to find the smartest, funniest take that we can possibly find on it. That's what we did before this happened and hopefully that's what we will continue to do."


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