"The world according to Stewart"
The Globe and Mail
October 3, 2002
by Simon Houpt


Like 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

NEW YORK -- 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 show."

Can't 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.

But the 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.

The Daily 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 to.)

Last week, 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?!"

An hour 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 Hall.

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.

In August, 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."

"That was 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.

"No, stupid 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 soap!' "

Stewart, 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 shoulder.

"Jon is 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."

Stewart 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.

"Ultimately, 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 pulpit."

So Stewart 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.

Last June, 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.

"I think 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."

Stewart 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.

"This administration, 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!"

A couple 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.

Not that 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. . . .

"You know, 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?"

After the 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."

Jon Stewart headlines a gala comedy event on Saturday at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall to celebrate the fifth anniversary of The Comedy Network.


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