"He doth protest: Jon Stewart's act of war"
October 3, 2002
by Joshua Ostroff


Laura Bush has recommended children stay away from the television tomorrow. To that list I would like to add adults ... and teenagers and old people. -- JON STEWART, 9/10/2002

"Two years ago the stakes weren't this high," says Jon Stewart over the phone from his New York studio, explaining how President George Bush has been able to gain nearly unprecedented political leverage from the events of Sept. 11. "The last time it's been in this country is World War II -- and [for Bush] to not use that leverage for something historic would be sad. Historic in a good sense," Stewart quickly clarifies, "not historic in a sense of 'so we dropped bombs on everyone.'

"This is a real moment when leadership counts. Our country should be engaged right now in a space race-style search for renewable energy. You can create a baby in a dish but you can't recalculate the formula for oil?"

Ever since Dubya warned "you are either with us or against us," the hapless U.S. media has fallen into sensationalistic lockstep. But free from the reins of, ahem, objectivity, mock-news anchor Jon Stewart provides this sort of desperately-needed alternative to groupthink. Since taking over The Daily Show from smarmy Craig Kilborn back in 1999, Stewart has used his position to draw attention to dishonesty. But post-9/11, Stewart offers an increasingly savage critique of "New War" America, one that he brings to Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday (Oct. 5). Five and Live! marks the Comedy Network's fifth anniversary, with Stewart performing alongside network colleagues Elvira Kurt and Jessica Holmes.

Stewart's brand of low-key, intellectual humour has been on the cultural radar for several years, first through his eponymous MTV show and later as "guest host" on The Larry Sanders Show. But it was his Daily coverage of the presidential election debacle, presciently dubbed Indecision 2000 long before election night, that made his mocking matter.

After winning a Peabody and an Emmy in 2001 -- he lost this year's Emmy to Sting in Tuscany , admitting: "I've always felt, in my heart, that Sting is funnier than I am" -- Stewart found himself with an almost unprecedented amount of critical latitude. It's certainly more than Bill Maher enjoyed, although Stewart has little sympathy for the Politically Incorrect host whose show was not renewed by ABC following his comments that the suicide bombers were far from cowards.

"I don't know why people think that somehow the First Amendment applies to network television," says Stewart. "It doesn't. It's like the way free speech doesn't apply at work. You can't just walk into your boss' office and say 'you're a fuckface and I'm gonna go back to work now.' No, you're not."

Since his own show doesn't cross lines just for the sake of it, he says he has felt no similar pressure to tone down his jokes. "I think we're so under the radar on cable that we don't really face that problem," he says. "We say shit all the time on this show that is remarkably critical or sassy, so to speak. And there is no consequence."

Night after night, Stewart and his cohorts skewer the Bushies' lack of compassion, inability to compromise and, especially, their suspicious, pre-election antagonism towards Iraq. "Even when it's clear that black is white and cats are dogs, they refuse to bow from message," Stewart gripes, citing Chief of Staff Andrew Card's recent response to a New York Times reporter's question on the sudden September push towards an Iraq invasion: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Stewart finds the U.S. government's obsession with Iraq nothing short of bizarre. "It'd be like after [the Japanese] bombed Pearl Harbour to go: 'That is it, Australia, you are done for!' Honestly, my theory is that if we get control of the Iraqi oil fields, we'll have more leverage to go after Saudi Arabia. What other purpose could there be?" A few nights after speaking to eye, Stewart posits this conspiracy theory during a Daily Show interview with George Stephanopoulos, and it does indeed seem strange that a comic offers more insight than all the talking heads the media can muster. Which is why he takes TV news to task almost as frequently as politicians and bureaucrats, particularly when it comes to the seemingly insatiable desire to frighten viewers.

"People think that's based on ideology, but that's based on business," says Stewart. "When they scare you, people watch," he says. "They've turned Sept. 11 into a movie trailer. I think the problem is they're so used to making something out of nothing -- like 'can your washing machine kill you?' -- that when something real happened, they didn't know how to turn the machinery off."

Stewart likes to think he represents the distracted centre -- reasonable people who are at neither extreme and who "aren't out there fighting for causes because they're busy," he says. "My politics is that extremism in any form has proven itself to be damaging." Refreshingly, he still defends the country he takes the piss out of each night, proud of America's relative honesty. He is angered by the hypocritical Europeans, who carved up the Arab world in the first place, and the liberal left, who he feels have "embraced the idea of terrorists as freedom fighters."

As he prepares to cover the upcoming mid-term elections from Washington, the self-deprecating comic downplays his outspoken role, refusing to confuse his TV gig with true activism. "I just think that we're spitting in the wind. All we can do is what we think is important and what we think'll be funny. Because at the end of the day, we're a comedy show, and if we're not funny there's really no point in us going out there."

Featuring Jon Stewart, Mike Bullard, Jessica Holmes, Elvira Kurt, Jeremy Hotz. Oct 5, 8pm. $29.50-$89.50. Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe. 416-872-4255. www.roythomson.com.]


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