Jon Stewart is for real

Sure, his news is fake, but take him at his word: He’s a comedian, not a political wonk. As if you had to ask.

Published January 18, 2007

He has already helped convince CNN to cancel Crossfire and supported pal Stephen Colbert as he felled the entire White House Press Corps last year in a single, devastating dinner performance.

So can you blame fans of Daily Show host Jon Stewart for hoping he might encore with a visit to, oh, The O’Reilly Factor or Jackass?

“Let me just say (about Crossfire), if that show hadn’t been on its last legs . . . they weren’t about to let that thing go away,” said Stewart, shrugging off a  2004 appearance where he told hosts of CNN’s political argument show that they were “hurting America.”

The program was canceled two months later.

“I don’t think it was any larger message CNN was sending,” he added, noting that the channel now just folds Crossfire-type arguments — with the same professional talking heads — into its regular news coverage. “They sent it once and decided 'Let’s go back to what we were doing.’ ”

With a penchant for dropping rimshot-worthy one-liners, Stewart seems determined to take every compliment and observation with the same dry nonchalance that makes his on-camera shtick so compelling.

Even his once-a-month standup comedy appearances (he’s in Tampa on Saturday) are downplayed.

He calls them “sort of like learning how to bartend; when the s--- hit the fan, at least you know you got work.”

Give him credit for increasing young people’s awareness of politics, or satirizing media from the inside out or ridding the world of Tucker Carlson’s bow ties, and he’ll respond with the verbal equivalent of a pratfall.

“We definitely recognize what a world-changing thing we have created and the power that we wield. And we wield it arbitrarily and mostly for evil,” said Stewart, with a chuckle.

Then seriously: “I just don’t know what to say about it. . . . We judge things based on whether we did a good show that night.

That’s all we think about. . . . All of this hand-wringing is the job of those that observe, not the job of those that are participating. That’s just not a part of our day — although Jazzercise is.”

Jokes, not stories

Perhaps Stewart doesn’t bother making judgments about his work because so many others have.

Researchers at East Carolina University concluded regular exposure to The Daily Show made young people develop more cynical views about politics and politicians.

A survey released in December by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that “in its pre-election coverage, Daily Show correspondents evaluated candidates and policies negatively 97 percent of the time.”

But why would researchers refer to Daily Show content — which Stewart likes to call jokes — as “coverage”?

“The Daily Show has set up residence on the border between news and entertainment,” said Matthew Felling, media director for the CMPA, a think tank in Washington.

“Its coverage is pointed, but not fictitious. They are a news and comedy program that is passing along the day’s headlines

. . . to an audience that ideally has been keeping up with the news enough that they can draw the line themselves.”

Conservatives have slammed Stewart and Co. for their relentless lampooning of George W. Bush and the GOP. But the CMPA’s study noted, for instance, that Democrat John Kerry was mocked more than any other politician.

Stewart laughs openly at the notion that a fake news show needs to show political balance.

“For god sakes, 70 percent of this is fueled on irrational stereotyping . . . I don’t know what balance has to do with it,” he said. “When I’m thinking about balance, I’m thinking more about strident versus silly, or fart jokes versus something more erudite.

We’re not thinking (adopts nerdy voice) 'That’s three Republican   jokes and two Democrat jokes.’ It focuses entirely on the reality on the ground.”

Outing the ridiculous

Stewart will agree, though, that his audience loves it when he plainly points out political and media con jobs.
“At a certain point, we’ve become very sophisticated about just how exactly we’re being sold a bill of goods,” he said.

“The better you get at identifying how you’re being manipulated, the harder it is for the con men. . . . All we can do is stick to our own internal sort of barometer of what we think is funny and what we think is interesting.”

What has interested The Daily Show recently: clips revealing that the 100 hours of achievement planned by Congress’ new Democratic majority included dopey boosterism for the University of Florida football team; satirizing  Condoleezza Rice’s insistence that an increase in troops in Iraq isn’t an escalation of war; and razzing conservative pundits’ insistence that recent Bush staff departures mirror mass firing actions by Abraham Lincoln (Stewart suggested comparing him instead to Apprentice star Donald Trump).

Stewart acknowledges that, without ace correspondents such as Colbert, Steve Carell (The Office), Ed Helm (The Office), Nate Corddry (Studio 60) and Rob Corddry (upcoming Fox sitcom The Winner), keeping the show stocked with quality stories has been tougher.

Still, sidesplitting part-timers such as Bernie Mac Show creator Larry Wilmore, who is black, and Indian-American actor Aasif Mandvi add ethnic diversity while bringing in new comedic voices.

But unlike other celebs with a white-hot profile and loads of cultural cachet, Stewart said he’s not looking to leverage his success into other, higher-profile gigs.

He laughs at the notion of taking over for Conan O’Brien when the carrot-topped comic takes over NBC’s Tonight Show in 2009. His office says rumors The Daily Show will team up with WashingtonPost.com for political coverage are false (Comedy Central may develop a partnership on its own).

And despite the mounting evidence that he has created bona-fide cultural institutions (the White House Correspondents’ Association even hired milquetoast political impressionist Rich Little as a speaker this year, in a step backward from Colbert’s brutal satire), Stewart downplays all talk of legacies, impact and cultural commentary.

“We exist as a televised editorial cartoon every day,” he said. “For the most part, it’s a couple of irrational, quizzical looks at the camera, a fine and dandy penis joke, a reference to the American legislative process and we’re done with the show.  . . .  I feel like I’ve already earned a reasonable amount of applause during the death montage at the Emmys.  . . .  So after that, what else are you working toward?”

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Here's the deal

- He appears at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $68.50 and $78.50. (813) 229-7827.

- The Daily Show airs original episodes at 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on Comedy Central.