May 2000
 
 

Anchor Astray
Jon Stewart's The Daily Show may be the best political
entertainment on TV. He's tapping into what every savvy
candidate knows: One way to voters' hearts is through their funnybones

By: Allison Adato 

Photography by Stefan Studer
 
 

Packed into a press conference in New Hampshire, the correspondent fires off his question to the candidate: "Mr. Forbes? Are you wealthy enough to relocate enough voters to swing the primary in your favor?"

Just before the voting moves to South Carolina, where the statehouse flag has been a sticking point, the reporter challenges John McCain: "Should Hazzard County force those Duke boys to remove the
Confederate flag from the roof of General Lee?"

In New York, the newsman and his camera crew trail Bill Bradley to a Manhattan rally. "Senator?" he implores, with the video rolling. "Can I have a hug?"

Amid hundreds of news broadcasts on nearly as many cable channels, there is one tiny team of journalists posing the tough questions. The questions that no other reporter dares to ask. Questions that compelled Steve Forbes, McCain, and Bradley to answer, in order, (1) "Huh?" (2) "That decision is under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane," and (3) "No." They are the men and women of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central's half-hour parody newscast anchored by 37-year-old comedian Stewart, whom we'll tell you lots more about later.

 But first, the show. The Daily Show likes to bill itself as "the most important TV program ever." It may seem like a bold claim, but what other news organization better captured pancake-flipping contests and candlepin bowling hours before the New Hampshire primary? "Why don't we just settle the whole thing with a game of donkey basketball?" Stewart suggests. "You know, just stick everybody in a gym, play donkey basketball, and whoever wins, wins. The longer I'm doing this I'm coming to learn that entertainment, politics, and the media are really juggling the same balls. We're all going for ratings, so we function by the same rules. What's a political poll other than a focus group for a television show?"

 If the election process has indeed become a circus, well, send in the clowns. "So much coverage in the mainstream press is dishonest and manipulative," says Craig Wolff, who teaches national affairs reporting at Columbia University. "To me, the humorists are in some ways presenting the most honest coverage."

 The Daily Show has stolen news programming's more lampoonable conventions (the concerned-reporter head tilt, for example) in order to present topical humor. "The more we pretend we're a news show, the clearer our comedy becomes," says Madeleine Smithberg, 40, one of the program's creators.

 It certainly looks like a news show. There's an anchor desk with a guy in a suit and tie behind it. Behind him hangs a really big metal globe. There are correspondents who go out in the field, and there's a political analyst: former senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who turned down other commentator offers in order to exercise a sense of humor that he believes might have helped make him president if voters had recognized it sooner.

 With Dole on board, the four-year-old show is in the midst of its most ambitious political coverage ever, "Indecision 2000." The reporters have covered the major primaries, and anchor Stewart plans to attend both conventions. To compete with multimedia coverage from outlets such as Time and CNN's AllPolitics.com Web site, the show has its own link to Yahoo's news page: www.comedycentral.com/indecision2000.

 If you haven't seen The Daily Show yet, the only thing you need to know is that it's all real. Bob Dole is Bob Dole, and not Saturday Night Live's former cast member Norm Macdonald playing Dole. The situations are not scripted. The man who told correspondent Steve Carell he wants to raise $3 million to open a poultry butchering museum really wants to raise $3 million to open a poultry butchering museum. "So, in that sense, we have a certain amount of integrity," Stewart says. "But please don't tell anybody."

 The reporters, of course, are following real presidential candidates, and their access to events is unprecedented for a comedy show. But it hasn't always been so easy. In 1992, Comedy Central had to fight for the right to carry the pool feed of President Bush's State of the Union address so that Al Franken could make running jokes about it. The major networks balked at sharing the live footage, but changed their minds when Comedy Central's lawyers threatened to sue.

 This year, Stewart's crew is scoring some semijournalistic coups. While big shots like Dan Rather rode on John McCain's Straight Talk Express, also-rans like The Daily Show's Carell got stuck on a trailing bus, where the doughnuts were stale and the lavatory stank. So Carell nabbed Cindy McCain and asked her to take a look.

 "I see what you mean," she said with concern. "Come on, I'll get you on our bus."

 "We could see her handlers bristling because they didn't know what our agenda was," Carell says. In the micromanaged world of political spinmeisters, this could have been a disaster. But both McCains went along with the spoof, including a sit-down interview with the senator in which he was asked a phony question about his embarrassing record of adding pork to legislation. Suddenly, McCain looked genuinely terrified. "Aww, I'm just kidding," Carell said, laughing. McCain liked the bit so much he later played a tape of the episode for other reporters.

 Stewart took over the The Daily Show anchor chair when Craig Kilborn left in 1998 to host The Late Late Show. Stewart, wrote a New York Times critic, "breathed new life into a show that hadn't even seemed to need it."

 Dispensing with Kilborn's ironic distance, Stewart also lifted the show's ratings. The Daily Show now draws about 450,000 viewers per night. Stewart is at his best when subtle. After running a sound bite from Bush, Stewart said nothing but simply looked terrified. He communicates what we're thinking: The man who just uttered those inane words has a 50-50 shot at becoming the next leader of the free world. "You don't try to top it with a written joke. Just on its own it can be ridiculous," says Ben Karlin, the show' s head writer.

 In New Hampshire, Stewart moderated a debate between an assembly of eminent journalists and politicians, including ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and former representatives Fred Grandy and Pat Schroeder. Before a packed crowd of 500 (Peter Jennings sat on the floor, while George Stephanopoulos stood in back), the panel raised serious issues of how politics are covered. When Schroeder complained that networks would rather air a segment on Jello wrestling than one on foreign policy, Stewart leavened the thin air with a self-deprecating wisecrack. "My job was the easiest one there," he says now. "I was Don Knotts. When everyone starts getting mad, I pull out the one shaky gun."

 Smithberg says that the goal of the untelevised event was "to show our colleagues in the legitimate media that we're the wisecracking kid in the back of the classroom who vocalizes what everyone's thinking." She uses the term colleagues without hesitation or irony. Sure, she and Stewart produce a comedy show, but they also offer a distinct editorial voice.

 If the line between real and comic coverage is blurred, it isn't the comedians who are entirely responsible for the soft focus. This is an age in which a stop on Jay Leno's or David Letterman's couch is a required campaign clicheİ, just as kissing a baby once was.

 Stewart says that a successful comic turn can humanize an otherwise distant candidate: "That's what campaigns boil down to: people who live with a certain privilege going,'Dude, I'm just like you.'

 "Why else would you go to New Hampshire and throw on a plaid jacket? Do you wear that at home? I know this sounds terribly cynical, but I believe that, deep at heart, politicians don't think the American people really understand the process."

 A candidate's appearance on a comedy show, Stewart contends, is smart politics; humor can disguise negative traits. "Why do you think this short man became a comedian?" says Stewart, who is five feet seven.

 Jon Stewart Leibowitz remembers being nine years old and staying with his school band in a New York hotel when a Nixon campaign van stopped just below his window. "I was thinking,'If I spit from hereŸ'" But before he could earn his living by spouting similar political invective, he first had to convince himself that, given his conventional suburban upbringing, stand-up was a reasonable aspiration.

 Raised by a physicist father and schoolteacher mother who divorced when he was 10 years old, Stewart recalls few discussions of current events in their Lawrenceville, New Jersey, home. His strongest childhood memories are of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, watching the 1969 moonwalk, and "throwing up in kindergarten from a bad ham sandwich." In high school--when he was "very into Eugene Debs and a bit of a leftist"--he was forced to play Ronald Reagan in a mock presidential debate. "I had to defend my increased military spending," he says with lingering distaste.

 After attending the College of William and Mary, Stewart worked as a contingency planner for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, filling his day with Lotus 1-2-3 charts of surplus hospital beds. He quickly decided to become a stand-up comic and found a niche in self-deprecating Jewish humor cut with reelingly hip cultural references. He caught an early break when Letterman became a fan and mentor, and in 1993 escaped the stand-up circuit with a talk show on MTV, The Jon Stewart Show. It was far cooler than any other late-night fare, but after nine months on MTV and another nine months in syndication, just as more viewers were starting to say, "Who is this guy? He's funny. . .² it was canceled.

 Stewart next landed a role on Garry Shandling's fake talk show The Larry Sanders Show, then moved in 1999 to anchoring the fake news on The Daily Show. In his own estimation, he is "the Lou Grant of fake news." It seems pointless to remind him that Lou Grant was fictional.

 In addition to overseeing the show (he is an executive producer, with Smithberg), Stewart has appeared in films such as Big Daddy and has written a book of essays, Naked Pictures of Famous People. He also can claim the distinction of being one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful in 1999. Before a recent taping, he was taking questions from the studio audience when a teenager shouted out a marriage proposal. "Thanks," said Stewart, who recently married longtime girlfriend Tracey McShane, a veterinary student. "But my wife has a thing about my marrying other people."

 Stewart shares credit for The Daily Show's success with his eclectic band of comedy writers and news veterans. Of them, correspondent Mo Rocca boasts the most impressive credentials. He once played Doody in a Southeast Asian production of Grease, studied Kabuki in Japan, and edited Perfect 10, a porn magazine that features only models without breast augmentation.

 Stewart's dry, spontaneous humor is crucial to the show's success, especially since it is taped early, making it impossible to chase, for instance, unfolding election returns. "There are times when we almost confuse ourselves about being a news show," Stewart says. "When there's a big story breaking, we're saying,'Let's get the footage, man!'"

 Recently, Dole arrived at the New York studio from Washington, D.C., just as Stewart was rehearsing his headlines segment. "You don't prepare for these things," said Dole, whose on-air analysis with Stewart is unscripted. When

 told that Stewart not only prepares, but has a dozen writers working for him, the author of Great Political Wit feigned a grimace. "I wish I could get his castoffs," Dole said.

 Dole doesn't need them. On the air, Stewart asked the former presidential contender what it is like to make the traditional concession phone call. "Does Bill Bradley actually call and go, 'Uh, is Al there?'"

 "Well," Dole quipped, "you never know if Al's there."

 Later, Stewart lobbed a question about mudslinging. "Do you think they'll turn it around and run a campaign you'll be proud of watching?"

 With impeccable comic timing, Dole deadpanned his answer: "No."

 The job of being a comedic journalist will grow only tougher as the election wears on. "It's like when you're playing craps, you can bet the line or you can bet against the line," Stewart says. "We're in the uncomfortable position of betting against the line, sort of cheering for chaos. Our saving grace, hopefully, will be the Reform party. Trump, Perot . . . bring it on. Anybody but Pat Paulsen. You don't want anyone running without a sense of earnestness, because that's what's so great about it."

 With the field narrowed to Gore and Bush, The Daily Show faces the danger of repeating the lines "stiff as a board" and "light as a feather" more frequently than at a slumber-party seance. But really, the problem is no different than the dilemma faced by mainstream media: How do you keep people tuned in to a far less colorful race? Hence, candlepin bowling.

 "Look at the way conventions have changed in the era of television," Stewart says. "They're probably produced by the guys who produced the Emmys in 1985. 'We're going to give you zap-ado! Bring out Aretha Franklin. Drop the balloons. Now tug at the heartstrings . . .okay, camera two, go in on the guy in the wheelchair.' Bang, he's talking about disabilities . . . ' It's entertainment. I don't know if that's what people want from their politics, but that's what it is. The difference to me is we make no bones about it. We know we're an entertainment show. They're all doing what we're doing, but we're the only ones saying we're doing it."