-- There are Q&A sessions, and then there's what Jon Stewart
gave at William and Mary Hall on Sunday afternoon.
Stewart - star of Comedy Central's Emmy-winning "The Daily Show,"
host of the past two Grammy Award shows, and a member of William
and Mary's graduating class of 1984 - returned to the campus
for homecoming weekend and did a free question-and-answer session
for about 4,000 students who crowded into the auditorium.
Questions, submitted by students and read by members of the
University Centers Activities Board, were asked and answered,
so technically it was a Q&A. But in style and content, much
to the delight of the crowd, it was an uproarious display of
improvisational standup comedy - with the occasional life lesson
tossed in for good measure.
"Whatever you do," he said in response to a question about preparing
for a career, "don't add to the suckiness that's out there.
There's a lot of mediocrity. Don't add to it."
When he played soccer at William and Mary, and when he coached
the Gloucester High School boys soccer team to the first victory
in the program's history, he was still going by his real name,
Jonathan Stewart Liebowitz. But in his homecoming appearance,
there was no mistaking the edgy, topical and frequently profane
wit that has made Jon Stewart a star.
Stewart, 40, explained that while making the drive from New
York along I-95, he celebrated the arrest of the sniper suspects
by "stopping for gas every five minutes and dancing at the pump."
Asked about the moving speech he gave on the first "Daily Show"
telecast after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he replied, "The
funny thing is, I wrote that speech in July and told myself,
'Boy, I hope I never have to use this.' "
Stewart mocked banal questions such as the most important thing
he learned in college - "What adult proctor selected these questions?"
- but went to town on the hipper submissions. One student said
he once had someone tell him he looked like Jon Stewart, and
wondered why that person laughed while making the comparison.
Stewart replied that television is "a great equalizer," and
suggested that if you put a grapefruit on TV, some people would
find themselves sexually attracted to citrus fruit.
"So the reason that person was laughing," Stewart said, "is
because of the sad juxtaposition of how your life would be if
you were on TV. If you look like me and you're on TV, there
are people who find you interesting. You look like me and you're
not on TV, you're alone."
Melissa Anderson would disagree. She and her friends, fellow
sophomores Kristen McAlister and Rachel Miller, came to the
event with handmade signs proclaiming Stewart "W&M's dreamiest
alum." Stewart's answers did nothing to change their opinion,
even as he reminded his audience that he graduated college the
same year that some of them were born.
"He was great," Anderson said. "When you hear that it's a Q&A
session, you don't know if he's going to be serious or funny,
or if it's going to be exciting or boring. But this was fantastic."
Aware of the strong social and political themes of the comedy
in "The Daily Show," one student asked what Stewart considered
to be "the most pertinent issue facing our country today." Stewart
demurred, but then observed that the biggest political divide
is not between Republicans and Democrats, not between liberals
"Really," he said, "it's between reasonable people and extremist
knuckleheads on both sides. The left, through the ACLU, has
largely paralyzed the legal system, and the right, through big
business, has largely paralyzed the wealth. But there will come
a time when the disaffected middle will take control, and that
will be you guys.
"There will be a day when the moderates rule the country, when
gays will be able to get married and you won't be able to sue
someone because your hot coffee was actually hot. When you take
that stuff out, the reasonable people will be in charge."