evening last November, Jon Stewart leaned on his anchor's desk
and chatted with the audience before taping an episode of "The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart." The show, which airs on Comedy Central,
is a news-parody program, and Stewart was being quizzed about
the war in Afghanistan. Someone asked if he would have John Ashcroft
as a guest. "No," Stewart said with regret, as if he were preparing
to explain the intricacies of trying to book the Attorney General.
"Technically, Ashcroft is not allowed to stand next to a Jew.
We're like Kryptonite to him."
That night's guest, Stewart went on to
say, would be David Halberstam, the author of "War in a Time of
Peace," a new book about America's isolationism during the ninteen-ninties.
The applause was tepid: the crowd, mostly Fordham University students
who live near the studio where the show is taped, in Hell's Kitchen,
seemed to fear an unscheduled lecture. Stewart, who can read a
crowd's mood as if it were stencilled on cue cards, instantly
said, "We did that because of all the E-mails from you kids, saying,
'Yes, Felicity's nice, but what about Halberstam?'"
Stewart's guests have traditionally been entertainers
like Ted Danson and Stephen Baldwin, who show up to plug their
latest projects for four minutes. But since September 11th "The
Daily Show," which airs Monday through Thursday nights at eleven
o'clock, has been transforming itself nearly every day. The show
won an Emmy for its writing about the last Presidential campaign,
which Stewart and Bob Dole dissected in a regular feature called
"Indecision 2000: Choose and Loose"; and after the terrorist attacks
it became even sharper. Guests who could discuss the war were
the norm -- even as the show hammered the media's endless examination
of the crisis, in segments with such titles as "Operation Enduring
Coverage," "Operation Self-Congratulations," and "America Freaks
When the taping began, Stewart breezed through
a few jokes about the day's top news stories and then welcomed
Halberstam, a silver-haired minence in a dark suit. Though Stewart
asked deft questions, Halberstam showed no interest in entering
into the terse give-and-take that television requires. "The oceans,
which had become ponds because of the nuclear war," he intoned,
"had become oceans again." Just offstage, the show's head writer,
Ben Karlin, rilled his eyes at the executive producer, Madeleine
Smithberg. When Stewart finally heard a stray appositive -- "what
my colleauge Les Gelb calls 'teacup wars'" -- he pounced.
"Yes, but I've always found Les Gelb
to just be a blowhard," Stewart said. Halberstam raised a wintry
eyebrow. Moments later, Stewart was bidding farewell: "It's a
beautiful read" -- he'd admitted earlier that he hadn't read the
book -- "and, as always, great to see you."
We've never met before!" Halberstam protested.
Then he laughed, seeing, finally, that, unlike every other talk
show he's been on, "The Daily Show" is not even insincerely sincere.
After the taping, Stewart walked over to Ned
Kelly's, a nearby pub, to have dinner. He had changed out of his
suit and into a T-shirt and jeans, a black leather jacket, and
a blue watch cap. Five feet seven inches tall and compact, Stewart,
who is thirty-nine, looks like a college kid, except that his
hair is now a distinguished gray. He is conventionally handsome,
and yet his face is all nose and recessed, worried-looking brown
eyes. When he was the host of "The Jon Stewart Show," on MTV in
1993-94, he was so anxious and so prone to catch colds that his
staff called him Susceptible Boy.
"Jon is a neurotic nut," his friend Adam
Resnick says. "But being around him is very calming -- he's not
unlike a good dog." Though he quit his fraternity at William &
Mary after six months because he hated the enforced friendships
and the hazing, he still exudes a fraternal "Need a hand with
that keg?" air. He calls his colleagues "chief" and shakes the
cameramen's hands after each show. When he was guest hosting "The
Late Late Show" in Los Angeles, he would sometimes sneak friends
into the empty "The Price is Right" studio, downstairs, and let
them spin the big wheel.
That playfulness informs his celebrity interviews.
"Usually, we clearly don't give a shit and neither do the guests,"
Stewart said, chewing a bacon cheeseburger. "With someone like
David Halberstam, though, I'd like to have an actual, non-anarchy-oriented
conversation. But there's always my unfortunate Krusty-the-Clown
instinct, which is heightened because I can hear the audience
breathing and going" -- he parted his lips and gave an expectant
simper. "So when it's been fifteen seconds and I've heard no laughter,
I go 'Look! Look at my nipples!'
"My comedy is not the comedy of the neurotic,"
he continued. "It comes from the center. But it comes from feeling
displaced from society because you're in the center.
We're the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation. We're
clearly the disenfranchised center" -- he savored the phrase --
"because we're not in charge. Like, if we were in charge at ABC
we'd never put on a show like '20/20 Downtown,' which is the worst
example of trying to figure out what the kids love -- 'Oh, let's
give them the same shit in a black leather jacket.' I was watching
Barbara Walters at the '20/20' desk, and it just looked like there
was nothing going on in there -- you imagine a calliope song playing
in her head." He began to hum a mindless ditty.
Stewart's center, in other words, is situated
not between the right and the left but between the top (our leaders)
and the bottom (crappy TV). Although only a few members of "The
Daily Show"'s staff of sixty acknowledge voting for George Bush,
the show is not partisan. Rather, it treats politics as simply
a subcategory of entertainment. Accordingly, every passionate
utterance by a President or passionate clinch in a Meg Ryan movie
is examined not for its underlying value -- its relevance as a
statement of conviction or aesthetics -- but for its comic visual
or aural or contextual similarity to an earlier pop-culture relic.
The fact that Osama bin Laden was one of fifty-two children becomes
the crucial detail to know about him, because it can be turned
into a joke about the Kennedy family (so many kids!), a deck of
cards (Osama's a joker!), or the otherwise forgettable seventies
show "Eight is Enough" (so many kids!).
This world view, which solemnized the values
of irony, bemusement, and an unholy retention of "Diff'rent Strokes"
trivia, both mocks and embraces the mainstream "Lethal Weapon
2" culture. Stewart manages to skewer cultural waste, arrogance,
and cupidity without making his viewers feel ashamed. As he put
it, "The disenfranchised center is upset that the extremes control
the agenda in disproportionate ways because the extremes care
more, they're passionate. Whereas the disenfranchised center doesn't
give a shit if gay people get married -- it would neither stop
them nor stand up for them."
"But you give a shit," I said. This was
not a topic he wanted to pursue.
"The audience doesn't," he replied. Stewart
is very fast. Not long ago, the actor Rob Morrow was on the show,
and he mentioned that he'd named his daughter Tu Morrow, preserving
a family tradition of puns. He added that his wife's name was
Debbon Ayer. Stewart promptly said, "I believe I know her sister,
Frigid." He is such a natural host that Comedy Central's president
and C.E.O., Larry Divney, worries that Stewart will be offered
a network talk show soon, one that will pay much more than his
present salary of one and a half million dollars.
But when Stewart is off camera he is off the
grid. To a host, everyone is a guest who might overstay his welcome.
Stewart doesn't have an E-mail address, and when I ask him why,
he seemed puzzled. "Don't you find people contact you way more?"
Rather than socialize, he prefers to do crosswords, watch "SportsCenter,"
or hang out at home with his wife, Tracey McShane, and their cat
and two dogs. He is essentially a high-functioning hermit.
"When I tended bar, after college, I
was always happier behind the bar, not out rocking to the band,"
Stewart told me. "People would be singing along to 'Mony, Mony,'
waving their arms and shouting that chant they all knew, 'Something-Something-Get-Fucked,'
and I'd be on the sidelines, thinking, 'Even drunk, I've never
had that much fun in my life.'"
After the terrorist attacks, Stewart. like
most residents of New York City, was in shock. "I live downtown,"
he told me, "and our cat carrier was packed and at the door. I
felt sick, I didn't want to eat. I felt like I imagine a person
feels when he's depressed."
The staff of "The Daily Show" reassembled at
its offices two days later. "We all felt that our lives were meaningless,"
Ben Karlin said, "Because of the virulent hatred toward the West,
you're suddenly aware that we're just disgusting consumers: twenty-five
per cent of the world's energy consumption, with five percent
of the world's population." The first question the staff addressed
was whether the show could ever go back on the air; after a few
days, the focus shifted to when and how. The news was too devastating
to ridicule (the program usually begins with a segment called
"Headlines," which involves video clips and jokes), and there
wasn't even a lame directive from the suits upstairs to scoff
at. Comedy Central, a joint venture between Viacom and AOL Time
Warner, has so little oversight from its corporate bosses that
Tom Freston, the show's supervisor at Viacom, calls it "the latchkey
kid." (The program's only real stricture is that the word "dildo"
can't be used more than three times per show).
Stewart finally decided that on September 20th
he would welcome viewers back with a monologue about his own thoughts
and feelings. "I needed to lance the boil," he said.
That idea would probably not have occured to
Craig Kilborn, who was behind the desk when "The Daily Show" began,
in 1996. Kilborn was a blow-dried blond anchor mocking blow-dried
blond anchors. The tone of his show was fast, smug, and mean.
When the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was
sentenced, in 1997, Kilborn noted that the towers' offices were
filled with stockbrokers, and included with a smirk, "Officials
speculate that if the bombing had gone according to plan it would
have taken a quarter of a million lives -- and ten or twenty souls."
After Kilborn left to host CBS's "The Late
Late Show," in December of 1998, Stewart replaced him the following
month. Stewart had been poised to break out for years, first as
a standup comedian and then in a series of short-lived jobs such
as hosting "The Jon Stewart Show," and acting on "The Larry Sanders
Show." But the promise had stalled. He had lost to Conan O'Brien
in the derby to replace Letterman on "Late Might," and Kilborn
bad beaten him out for "The Late Late Show" job. Stewart was in
danger of becoming another Gilbert Gottfried or Dana Carvey: talented
comedians who never found the right vessel and just faded away.
A few months into his tenure, after the show
had savaged the occasion of the Barbie doll's fortieth anniversary,
Stewart convened his ten writers, most of whom were holdovers
from the Kilborn era. "Half the jokes were about Barbie as a bad
role model for girls, and the other half were about how ugly the
spokesmodel was," he said. "I told the writers, 'We have got to
straighten out our point of view here. From now on, it's not going
to be adjectival humor, where Monica Lewinsky is "the portly pepper
pot." but about how we really feel.' There were some strains"
-- only three of those ten writers remain -- "but we got it working."
"We strive for some significance now,"
J.R. Havlan, one of the writers who stayed on, says. "But we'll
still point out that Hamid Karsai looks like Ben Kingsley." "The
Daily Show" is now watched by seven hundred thousand people each
night, twice the number of viewers under Kilborn.
Because Stewart is so circumspect, no one on
the show knew quite what to expect from his September 20th monologue.
The program began without its customary portentous music or swooping
camera angles. Viewers simply saw Stewart at his desk, his hands
fiddling with his pen. He explained that he was there because
"they said to get back to work. And there were no jobs available
for a man in the fetal position, under his desk, crying, which
I gladly would have taken." Then, tearing up a little, he said,
"I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don't despair."
His voice broke, and he paused for a few seconds to collect myself.
Extending a hand toward the camera, as if to
pull himself through it and into his viewers' living rooms, Stewart
said that one of his first memories, when he was five, was the
day Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. The ongoing recovery effort
at Ground Zero, he said, was King's dream, realized. "We are judging
people not by the color of their skin but the content of their
character . . . . To see these firefighters, these guys from all
over the country, literally with buckets rebuilding, that, that
is, that's extraordinary -- and that's why we've already won."
He settled himself again, then brought the monologue, which had
lasted nine minutes, to a close. "The view from my apartment was
the World Trade Center. Now it's gone . . . . But you know what
the view is now? The Statue of Liberty." He smiled, asking forgiveness
for his rocky state. "You can't beat that."
Many members of "The Daily Show"'s staff were
stirred by Stewart's openness; clearly, he had surprised himself
as well. After the commercial break, he came back with his makeup
refreshed and said, "Hey, you know what's nice? A good cry. I
feel like Robin Williams in 'Bicentennial Man.'" He took on the
round-eyed look of a robot puzzled by new emotions: "I -- I can
Even though the September 20th show established
Stewart as someone to trust and turn to, a national figure, he
says he'll never watch it again. "A few days afterward, Howard
Stern was busting on me on the radio for crying on the air," he
says sheepishly. "I called in and he played me portions of it,
and it was horrible to listen to. When I did it, it felt great.
Two days later, it sounded like a cat running into a fan. I finally
told Howard that that night I happened to be ovulating."
In the days after Stewart's return to the air,
his show wasn't so funny. The following week, he conducted long,
sober interviews with Frank RIch, Aaron Brown, and Jeff Greenfield
about the state of America's soul, and his "Headlines" were labored
riffs on video clips of a Chinese panda's birthday and the Fox
special "Who Wants to Be a Princess?" A sense of irrelevance and
apology hovered over the entire effort; in the nine days that
the show was off the air, twenty-five per cent of its viewers
had departed for such channels as Nick at Nite. It was not a hospitable
time for comedy. In early October, "Saturday Night Live" tried
a few one-liners about Bush, which didn't go over with the audience
during dress rehearsal, and a bin Laden joke that hushed the room.
The lines were snipped fom the final show.
It wasn't until October 3rd that "The Daily
Show" tiptoed back toward topicality, in a piece suggesting that
among the disguises bin Laden might adopt was a Jennifer Aniston
wig. The next day, Stewart showed pictures of a MSNBC correspondent
Ashleigh Banfield before and after she went to Islamabad: "As
you can see, by darkening her hair, making it slightly shorter,
she has effectively eliminated any problems a woman might have
in a radical fundamentalist regime." When Americans became obsessed
with anthrax, the show ran a CNN-like ticker at the bottom of
the screen that said,"91 Percent of Americans 'Want Mommy,'" "Chicken
Little: 'The Sky Is Falling!,'" and "Oh God Oh God Oh --"
To the surprise of everyone on "The Daily Show,"
the number of viewers quickly rose to the show's pre-September
11th level: it turned out that there was an appetite for silly
jokes about life-and-death matters. The media's lack of proportion,
which proliferated as the war did, clarified the show's new enemy:
anyone who terrifies, offends, or panders to Americans, from Al
Qaeda to Tom Ridge. When the "home video" of bin Laden taking
credit for the attacks surfaced one of the show's correspondents,
Stephen Colbert, reported "live from outside of the White House"
-- actually, from the studio, with a green-screen image of the
White House behind him -- told viewers that the official response
to the video was "Fuck you, you fucking cocksucker!" (The censor's
bleeps were ineffectual.) He added that the White House planned
to clone bin Laden after capturing him, "so that each year a fresh
bin Laden can be executed during the Super Bowl halftime."
It was in this atmosphere of renewed confidence
that, at eleven-thirty one morning in early December, Stewart
convened his daily meeting. Also present in his office were Madeleine
Smithberg, Ben Karlin, and Stewart's brown mutt, Monkey, which
snored quietly on the couch. The morning's big news was that the
American turncoat John Walker Lindh had been captured in Afghanistan.
"I just feel bad for Walker's parents,"
Smithberg said. "He goes missing and all of a sudden turns up
in the Taliban."
Stewart assumed the tones of a bewildered parent:
"'She said she was going on spring break, and the next thing we
knew she was turning tricks in Seattle.'" He paused. "We should
do this as a 'Less Than Zero': 'You don't know what it's like
to grow up wealthy!'"
"To come from tony suburbs," Karlin suggested.
"Easy for you to judge," Smithberg began,
and Stewart finished, "You came from a broken home."
On the muted television near Stewart's cluttered
desk, CNN was showing footage of Palestinians killed by Israeli
conterattacks after the altest round of suicide bombings. "Oh,
God," Stewart said softly. "Aw, Jesus Christ," Smithberg said.
Everyone watched in silence.
A minute later, Joie Chen appeared onscreen,
talking with a military expert as they both stood on the network's
huge map of Asia. "In Mazar-i-Sharif, they're looking right up
her skirt," Stewart said.
"Standing on their country," Karlin said.
"It's the perfect manifestation of U.S. imperialism!" Karlin,
who is thirty, was the editor of the satirical newspaper The
Onion in the mid-ninties. He has a round face and dark-blond
curls and often wears black turtlenecks, which combine to give
him the look of an angry folksinger. On his bulletin board is
pinned a USA Today clipping in which President Bush says
that he would never ask Americans to conserve energy. Karlin has
circled a quote from the White House press secretart Ari Fleisher:
"The American way of life is a blessed one."
Stewart and Karlin finish each other's jokes
and are in near-perfect synch. But, while Karlin tends to push
for fiercer barbs, Stewart often goes for big laughs, a quantity
reverentially known among the show's staff as "the funny." "Ben
is more passionate and can be disappointed more easily," Stewart
told me. "He makes me feel like the old chief, who smiles at the
young brave's idealism and passion." When the show did send up
CNN's map, it had two correspondents touching points on the landscape
with their hands and feet, pretzeling around each other in a game
of Twister. American imperialism was not mentioned.
Two hours later, Stewart and Karlin were watching
Fox News footage of a Geraldo Rivera report from Taloqan, Afghanistan.
For five minutes, Rivera displayed the thin and shivering children
of the town as a silent backdrop while he mugged and showed viewers
his down sleeping bag. He made slaphappy cracks about how uncivilized
the locals were, lamenting that they "have no regard for the sanctity
of the press," and then he blistered about the dangers he faced.
Under questioning from the anchor in New York, Rivera finally
admitted, coyly, that he was carrying a gun.
When the tape ended, Stewart and Karlin sat
in silence. "No regard for the sanctity of the press," Stewart
finally said. "That's good, coming from Rivera." He had is face
in his hands. "You know, he said he hoped the war wouldn't be
over before he got there. What kind of a retard says that? Let's
bring in the writers."
Upstairs, in a small, bare office, five of
the writers watched the Geraldo tape over and over. Everyone rocked
and stared at the ceiling, and then someone would try a joke and
the room would burst into motion -- tweaking, rephrasing, rejecting
-- before the autism of furious thought resumed.
Finally, a writer named David Javerbaum said,
"The four most dreaded words in journalism: 'Geraldo's got a gun.'"
Everyone laughed, and another writer typed the joke into the script.
"Second most dreaded," he prompted. Javerbaum rocked and concentrated:
"Blitzer's at the keg."
At 5:30 P.M., after the dress rehearsal, and
while a comic warmed up the crowd, Stewart, Karlin, and Smithberg
huddled in the greenroom, still tinkering with the Geraldo jokes.
Stewart said, "How about we show Geraldo laughing and I come back
and say, 'Ha-ha-ha. Those kids were . . . starving.'"
"Great!" Karlin said, seeming relieved
that Stewart would be willing to take a direct shot at Rivera's
At the taping, the "Geraldo's got a gun" line
got a long, hard laugh. But Stewart wasn't entirely satisfied.
"The beauty of the Geraldo tape was watching the whole thing,"
he said later, "so it was a relatively untenable comedic situation.
We just had to extract what we could, play it, and frown. But
we also didn't want to seem too outraged. That's the mistake we
made doing 'Who Wants to Be a Princess?,'because a Fox show is
not exploitative, really, not in the sense of Sudanese slavery.
Geraldo's almost too easy to make fun of, and we have worthier
targets." He paused. "But we do have a new tape of him saying
that if Aaron Brown had been in his shoes in Afghanistan, he 'would
poop his pants.' So we've got to get that out there."
Ten days later, on a cold, sleety afternoon,
Stewart was having his usual cheeseburger and Coke at Ned Kelly's.
As he ate, a construction worker came over. "My sister loves
you," he said to Stewart. "Could you sign a Christmas note to
"Oh, really?" Stewart said, waggling
his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. He wrote a note and signed it
in John Hancock-size cursive, and shook his fan's hand. When he
left, Stewart leaned over and whispered, "You know, I did fuck
his sister, and she was great." Then he wrung his right hand cautiously.
"The guy has hands like a maul. He's going to come out on the
street and go" -- he sniffed his hand -- "'Oil of Olay? What is
he, a florist?'"
A hint of Stewart's eariler comic persona,
from his club days, came through in that joke: the timorous outsider.
Or, as Stewart rephrased it when I put it that way, "You mean
the short, hairy, big-nosed, picked on Jew?" In the mid-ninties,
Stewart had a routine in which he observed that when blacks and
Jews fight it only plays into the ruling class's plan. "Jews and
blacks, we should get together," he'd say, "and get whitey!" I
mentioned the Ashcroft-Jews joke that Stewart had made off camera,
and asked him if he'd say that on the air. "No," he said, "because
it states the premise."
Now that he has a wider audience, I wondered,
perhaps he steers toward the ecumenical -- if desenfranchised
"I see where this is going," Stewart
said. "You're suggesting that there's a bagel-sized chip on my
shoulder?" He thought for a second, and went on carefully, "I
didn't grow up in Warsaw, but it's not like it wasn't duly noted
by my peers that that's who I was -- there were some minor slurs."
Born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz, in New York City, Stewart grew
up in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, a solidy middle-class enclave
that lacked a synagogue or a Jewish presence. He recalls being
called "Leibotits" and "Leiboshits," and getting punched out at
the bus stop when he was in the seventh grade. "I was holding
my books and a trellis I had made in shop and thinking How much
more of a pussy can I be?"
When Stewart was twelve, his parents divorced.
His friends say that he was deeply shaken by the breakup, and
by his subsequent failure to find common ground with his father,
who is a physicist. His mother, Marian, says that her son's riffs
about the family are just "his humor." She told me, "On 'The Jon
Stewart Show,' he broadcast reports from the Olympics by his mother,
as David Letterman did -- only Jon's mother was played as a go-go
dancer. Now, am I a go-go dancer? Of course not," said Marian,
who is an educational consultant.
Stewart, after graduating with a degree in
psychology, took a series of eccentric jobs, among them staging
puppet shows about the disabled for New Jersey public-school children.
"I was a little lost from the age of eighteen to twenty-four,"
He said. "I had my midlife crisis early. In 1986, I was living
in Hamilton, New Jersey, working for the state and bartending
and playing on a landscape company's softball team. I started
thinking, This is it for the next seventy years? So I told my
mom I was going to New York to do comedy. I never discussed it
with the -- what's the other one called? -- dad."
Stewart says that his father has never seen
him perform. Marian Leibowitz said, "All Jon had ever done was
host the high-school talent show, so his father said it was a
ridiculous idea. I didn't say it, but I figured, New York
City is an hour and a half away, he'll be back soon enough."
On his second night of doing standup at a Manhattan
club called the Bitter End, Stewart changed his name. He explained,
"The host's hesitation at trying to pronounce my name the first
night bothered me. And," he continued, hesitatingly, "there was
a slight leftover resentment at the taunting. You don't want a
tauntable handle in show business. And" -- Stewart's instinct
for privacy and his instinct for honesty westled at even greater
length -- "some leftover resentment at my family." His face was
blank, dreained of its antic warmth. He added quickly, "But I
didn't really change my name -- I just shortened it. I didn't
want to go as far as making it Dirk Cloud, or Poopy Joe, the Rodeo
A white-haired woman who was passing our table
on her wat our, after a few afternoon cocktails, stopped and took
Stewart's arm. She leaned over to talk to him, and, from the confiding
way in which she mentioned her recent eightieth birthday, they
might have been old Ned Kelly's pals. But it was not so. "Be careful
on the way home," Stewart said, as she buttoned her coat and aimed
herself at the street. Then he turned to me and said, "You know,
I was this close to fucking her. She almost fell on my penis."
He shook his head in genuine amusement. "I just learned more about
her than I know about anyone," he said. "Her husband has Alzheimer's,
she comes here for a couple of pops so she doesn't have to drink
alone, she prefers vodka, and I even know she's a Sagittarius.
The only thing she didn't do was pitch her project -- 'When's
you're movie coming out?'"
The next time I saw Stewart, in his office,
he said, "Hey! My mom says you called her a kike." I responded
that I'd watched his movie "Playing by Heart" the night before.
He did a graceful spit-take of his Coke, back into the glass.
"Playing by Heart," which was released in 1998, is a pallid romantic
comedy, and Stewart wears a stitched-on grin as he delivers such
lines as "Call me nuts, Meredith, but I like you." In Danny DeVito's
forthcoming movie "Death to Smoochy," Stewart is equally unremarkable
as a craven television executive.
"You won't see me playing one of those
retarted-man-raising-a-child roles," he said. Stewart understands
that he is not an actor but a performer -- someone who can delevier
a heightened verson of himself. "What I can do is look directly
into the cameral and tell you how I feel -- 'I have to apologize
for that joke.' I'm not good at playing earnestness, but I feel
that I am an earnest person."
Yet he resists using his anchor desk as a bully
pulpit. "The show is not a megaphone," Stewart said. "You can't
end every joke with 'Let's bomb the motherfuckers,' even though
that's how I feel. But I take some pleasure in just ridiculing
Al Qaeda. When we got the Kandahar tape" -- the bin Laden video
-- "our first instinct was to just lay down fart noises and let
the tape run. Mock the Devil, because he hates to be laughed at."
Mocking the Devil is the response of a civilized
man. Whether it's a sufficient response is another question. Ben
Karlin said, "Our defining moment, with John McCain, represents
both the triumph and the failure of our show." In late 1999, one
of the show's correspondents, Steve Carell, boarded Senator McCain's
campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, and asked the candidate
to name his favorite movie and his favorite book. Then, with no
change in his expression, he asked McCain how he could reconcile
his criticism of pork-barrel politics with the fact that "while
you were chairman of the Commerce Committee, that committee set
a record for unauthorized apppropriations." For a long moment,
McCain was speechless. Carell started laughing. "I'm just kidding!"
he said. "I don't even known what that means!"
"That's a true fact, that question,"
Karlin said. "And McCain was caught in the headlights. But we
punctured it with a joke, so all you're left with is funny and
awkward. It's bittersweet."
For months after the interview, McCain played
a tape of the exchange with Carell on the Straight Talk Express's
video screen -- a decision that does him credit. It also suggests
that nowadays satire is often perceived by its target as a badge
of honor, or, at worst, as simply another media mention or product
placement. Larry Divney, Comedy Central's president, told me,
"If the show is going to go after an advertiser, we call the advertiser
with a heads up, but we tell him, 'If Jon is making fun of you,
it's a plus. It means you're being talked about!'"
It bears remembering that "The Daily Show"
and CNN, its frequent target, are both part of AOL Time Warner.
Insofar as giant corporations plot world domination -- and they
do -- AOL is using the show to extend the reach of its infotainment
programming to a younger market segment. Don't care for CNN's
news? Try ourt zesty "salsa" alternative, "The Daily Show"! But,
while Ben Karlin agonizes about being what he calls "a corporate
whore," Stewart calmly accepts his role. "Nobody should overstimate
our punk-rock status," he told me. "To the extent that we're not
completely ineffectual, we're complicit in the corporate scheme,
which is about selling soap."
Before the taping that evening, Stewart checked
in with Madeleine Smithberg in the greenroom. Everyone was tired
-- tired of being charmed by Rumsfeld, of trying to wring jokes
out of the mess in Tora Bora caves, of putting out a string of
plucky shows. "Some days we surf along," Stewart said. "But today
we were just" -- he made a jackhammer motion. "All our initial
reactions are past -- the ticker, the anthrax, the Banfield."
"People walking on the map," Smithberg
"The stuff that leaped out. Now we're
in the grind of it, every day. Nothing is presenting itself that
purely anymore. The problem is, there's no definitive end." Stewart's
voice trailed off. "We had a period of statesmanship -- of
governance without politics -- and now the politics has returned,
and the silliness. More jokes for us, but it's disappointing."
By mid-January, the show was largely given over to the President's
having choked on a pretzel.
Ben Karlin bursts in. "Want to hear something
amazing and sad?" he said. "I just head from someone at Fox News
that whenever we make fun of them, they all gather and watch.
They love it!" Expecting more of a response, he waited. "But we
Smithberg opened her eyes. "They think we're
not making fun of them individually."
"But we are!" Karlin said. Stewart smiled
at his young brave, and just then a producer knocked on the door
and said they were ready. The audience could be heard rumbling
expectantly outside. Stewart got up, straightened his tie, sighed,
then shook his head a few times to clear it, and grinned, looking
like his old self. "O.K.," he said. "Let's go put on a show."
One sure sign that our country is returning
to normal is that "The Daily Show" is back, and is being watched
with pleasure by ever more Americans who, once again, could care