court jesters of old, Jon Stewart wields subversive humour on
The Daily Show, writes SIMON HOUPT, and proves
a little satire can still be a dangerous thing
-- During a public interview as part of last weekend's New Yorker
Festival, Lorne Michaels tried to deflate a long-standing impression
of Saturday Night Live 's anarchic early days. "I'm not
sure the show was ever dangerous," he said with a dismissive
shrug. "It was thought of as dangerous, but it was a comedy
be dangerous? What about those old court jesters who used to
smile devilishly and thrust a shiv into the king's conscience?
Sometimes their wit could provoke progressive and dangerous
policies. True, times have changed. And perhaps no TV show today
can be genuinely dangerous, especially if it airs on commercial
television supported by advertisers who want to sell soap rather
than a revolution.
best comedy is still fuelled by an urge for subversion, and
though SNL lost its bite years ago, genuine satire still
exists in tiny outposts on the program grid. The most consistently
sharp is probably The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which
airs in Canada on the Comedy Network. The show's satire may
not be lethal, but it's weaponized.
Show began six years ago as a news parody like This Hour
Has 22 Minutes , poking fun at the self-important and bombastic
conventions of the form. It was almost too successful. In a
depressing illustration of how the news and entertainment industries
have finally merged, polls during the 2000 U.S. presidential
election indicated that people in their 20s who didn't read
newspapers or watch much TV news were using The Daily Show
as a primary source of information.
It was all
more or less harmless fun until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
forced the show to turn its wit toward serious issues. Nowadays,
you're as likely to see New York mayor Michael Bloomberg or
a network news anchor or deep thinker such as David Halberstam
on the show as Adam Sandler or Goldie Hawn pushing their latest
movies. (Well, statistically that's not quite true, but the
heavy hitters do pop up much more frequently than they used
host Jon Stewart welcomed George Stephanopoulos to talk about
American politicians beating their chests for an attack against
Iraq. Playing sweet, dumb and harmless -- like the best court
jesters -- Stewart floated the idea that perhaps the United
States wanted to effect "regime change" in order to grab control
of the oil in the region. Stephanopoulos agreed it was a possibility.
"But that's crazy! Who in this administration has interests
in the oil industry?" cried Stewart in pretend bafflement. "Who?!"
later, after slipping from the smooth and sombre perfection
of his news anchor's designer suit into ratty jeans and a hole-ridden
sweater, Stewart quietly sighed and began to decompress in his
cluttered office above The Daily Show studios.
He joked about his visit to Toronto this Saturday to host the
Comedy Network's fifth anniversary celebration at Roy Thomson
In the segment
before the Stephanopoulos interview, Stewart and The Daily
Show 's so-called "senior political correspondent" Stephen
Colbert made loopy fun of George W. Bush speaking about the
need for the "embetterment" of Palestinians. Bush's malapropisms
have given the show miles of material since the then-presidential
hopeful slipped on "subliminable" during the 2000 campaign,
but the writers try not to indulge in that sort of comedy too
often. It's too easy, and it smells faintly of kicking a man
when he's down. They prefer to earn their laughs going after
the meaty elements of the Bush presidency.
Bush condemned a terrorist attack in Israel, which had killed
nine people, during an early morning photo-op on the golf course.
"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these
terrorist killers," said a stone-faced Bush, wielding his gold
club. "Thank you. Now watch this drive."
the best clip we've ever gotten of him, because that spoke to
The Lie, not The Tic," Stewart declares. "Malapropisms are a
nervous tic. He's not a stupid man. That may be the portrayal,
that he's stupid. No, he's not! Stupid people live in trailers
and drink Ripple and can't figure out which way to turn," says
Stewart, adding parenthetically, "And by the way, that doesn't
mean all people who live in trailers are stupid." He might add
that The Daily Show has done more than its share of painting
Bush as intellectually challenged.
people can't navigate their way through the world. Bush has
navigated his way through the world with a ruthless ambition
couched in lethargy. That's not stupid; that's brilliant! 'I'm
gonna do nothin' till I'm 40. I'm gonna be drunk, I'm gonna
party down, I'm gonna go crazy, and you know what? I'm still
gonna be fuckin' President!' That's stupid?! I mean -- that,
that -- that's mind-blowing! Stupid is, 'Oh my God, I just ate
39, delivers all of this with a puppy-dog demeanour that allows
him to bite hard without seeming nasty. And he seems genuinely
well-liked among the staff. During a commercial break in the
middle of the taping, he sidled up to one of the show's long-time
security guards and laid his weary head plaintively on the fellow's
the type of person who is very much analytical, very much in
the world," his executive producer Madeleine Smithberg. "He
thinks about what's going on in the world and he feels things
very deeply, and I think that is reflected in the show."
and his wife of two years are working on having kids. This fact
may speak to something essential in his character or it may
not, but it visibly sets him apart from the four late-night
network talk-show hosts, none of whom have children. Bringing
a life into the world is daunting, mature and ultimately hopeful,
characteristics not normally associated with late-night comics.
It also speaks to a desire to leave things better than you found
them. Stewart's comedy is steeped in that impulse, though he'd
probably deny it. If their critical and subversive element becomes
too obvious, Stewart and the rest of The Daily Show's
staff fear that people will think they've got more in mind than
just going for The Funny.
you really have to be careful not to become didactic," says
head writer Ben Karlin. "Once you step over that line, you really
lose the grasp on what's funny, and you also kind of lose your
credibility a little bit because you just become about a bully
insists on attacking all absurdities, not just political ones,
and he takes regular gleeful shots at the guys who cut his cheques.
In the United States, The Daily Show is the flagship
program of the cable network Comedy Central, which is partly
owned by AOL Time Warner. That means it's a cousin (or maybe
a half-brother) of CNN, which frequently comes under Stewart's
withering attack. But how to resist? Sometimes, CNN just seems
to be asking to be ridiculed.
during an interview with Stewart, Connie Chung asked him if
he'd been approached by a network to replace either Dan Rather
or Peter Jennings. Stewart isn't often shocked, but for a moment
he was genuinely taken aback. Today, recalling that moment,
he's still incredulous at the things that get said on news programs.
when everybody's running so fast to get something out there,
they're not stopping to say" -- here, his voice becomes deliberate
and monotonic, like a teacher slowly subjugating verbs in a
Grade 1 French class -- " 'Oh. Wait. That doesn't make any sense.
His show's fake! Why would they put him on a show that wasn't
fake? That would be crazy. They would be crazy to do that,'
" he says dryly. "Why would they approach me to do that? I'm
fake. That would be admitting to everybody that they're fake."
wouldn't get so worked up if the potential stakes weren't so
high. But with journalists substituting gossip for reporting
and filling their shows with dopey chat instead of pursuing
the truth about things that matter, political and business leaders
can do whatever they wish. Case in point: the corruption of
Wall Street currently coming to light. Or Bush's desire to crush
Saddam Hussein without bothering with a full debate over the
issue of military action.
more than any other I've ever seen, is gaslighting us!" he declares.
"Literally, it's raining on us, it's cloudy, and they go, 'And
on this sunny day' -- No, it's not sunny. And they say, 'Uh
-- this sunny day,' and then you look at the backdrop they've
got and it says sunny and they say, 'See, sunny?' It's
just a lie. They just don't acknowledge it. And by not acknowledging
it, what they say becomes true!"
of weeks ago, in what Stewart and Smithberg attribute half-jokingly
to some severely crossed wires, CNN International began airing
The Daily Show . It seems like a nutty idea. Imagine
the effect of the news satire in places like Burundi and Namibia
-- or, for that matter, Iraq. But maybe the show will find a
sympathetic audience that is reassured by the fact that not
everyone agrees with the U.S. administration's aggressive stances.
It could only help break down the United States' monolithic
image in the rest of the world.
you'll catch Stewart apologizing for the country. "Listen, a
huge criticism I hear constantly is, America acts in its own
interests. As opposed to, uh, Venezuela, which as you know will
always hold the door open for Brazil?" he asks rhetorically.
"There's not a country in the world that doesn't act in its
own interests. . . .
Europe seems to have forgotten the boundaries that they're fighting
over were drawn by them. I don't understand how England and
France express outrage: 'You're imperialistic!' As opposed to
colonialism? It's mind-boggling! Nuclear war could be set between
Pakistan and India: a situation inherently caused by England.
So where's the self-righteousness? I don't understand. How did
we suddenly become the linchpin of this?"
Stephanopoulos show last week, Stewart asked his studio audience
to stick around for a couple of minutes so he could tape a brief
introduction that runs at the top of The Daily Show: Global
Edition episodes airing on CNN International. He explained
to foreign viewers that the show was a parody and should not
confused with real news. When the camera light switched off
and the tape stopped rolling, Stewart held his pose for another
few seconds before his face melted into a heartfelt expression
of hope and longing. Still looking into the camera, he said:
"Please love our country."
Stewart headlines a gala comedy event on Saturday at Toronto's
Roy Thomson Hall to celebrate the fifth anniversary of The Comedy