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America Is a Joke

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At a 9:30 a.m. meeting, Stewart and his writers mine the news for comedy.  

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

Glenn Beck is an even more frequent Daily Show presence—as a target. The Fox News star takes a different view—surprise, surprise—praising Stewart while dismissing him as mere entertainment. Even as he’s built an enviable political base, Beck knows he’s a showman, and he thinks that makes Stewart a kind of brother.

“Jon Stewart is very funny, and if I were in his position, I’d be doing a lot of the same things. In fact, a lot of the jokes I’ve heard before, either from my staff or myself,” Beck says by e-mail. “He takes things out of context (no worse than most of the other mainstream media) and is more interested in being funny than trying to actually understand the key messages in [my] show … But I don’t think he’s looking for a Pulitzer … People like Jon, his ratings are good. Good for him, keep doing what he’s doing. People seem to like watching my show as well, and hopefully that continues for both of us for a very long time.”

The Obama presidency was supposed to spell doom—or at least irrelevance—for Bush-satirizing comics like Stewart and his protégé Stephen Colbert. But a funny thing happened and is continuing to happen. Stewart is as essential as ever. Lately the show has been on a hot streak, exposing anti-mosque demagogues and carving up spineless Democrats. One of the lessons of the recent past is that the circus is in town no matter who is in the White House, which, while far from ideal for the state of our nation, has only increased the standing of a satirist like Stewart. Creating consistently funny and barbed bits four nights a week is extremely difficult, and not only because Stewart has to fend off the adulation of an audience that wasn’t entirely kidding with those STEWART/COLBERT ’08 bumper stickers. Constant exposure to the muck of politics can easily, and quickly, produce cynicism. Yet immersion in the political-media mess has left Stewart at once more bitter and more idealistic.

“Even if you’re eating delicious chocolate cake, there are moments you feel like, ‘I’ve had too much,’ ” Stewart says. “Now replace ‘chocolate cake’ with ‘shit taco’ and you know what our day is like every day. But this is not a fragile country. I’m not suggesting we couldn’t find ourselves in deep conflict. But we had slaves, and we fought a civil war; now we’re down to Glenn Beck being hyperbolic with his audience about nostalgia. This too shall pass.” Which doesn’t mean that Stewart is so confident in the inexorable triumph of good and right that he’s going to stop ridiculing the evildoers and charlatans.

“Here’s something you always like to see,” Stewart says, scanning the front page of the Washington Post. “ ‘U.S. Trade Deficit Startles Markets.’ Now, we’ve understood the U.S. trade deficit for a while. Are the markets small children that are easily startled? The next day, they’ll get an unemployment number and go, ‘Oh, I don’t know why we were startled and lost 200 points yesterday; today, we realized the shirt on the chair wasn’t a monster, so we’re going to put 300 points back on the Dow because we’re fucking 5 years old.’ ”

Stewart sits behind his office desk, two brick walls forming a corner behind him. He wears the same off-camera outfit nearly every day: Black work boots, chinos, frayed gray T-shirt. He’ll read the New York dailies as well, plus Talking Points Memo, Andrew Sullivan, maybe the blogger Allahpundit, searching for interesting thinking and potential Daily Show material. But Stewart intentionally keeps his media consumption modest. “Mostly I look at sports websites, so my head doesn’t explode,” he says. “I’m saving that for home, when someone doesn’t pass the gravy.”

Downstairs, Daily Show staffers monitor every minute of Fox News and hundreds of political shows, at least until workplace-cruelty inspectors find out. Groups of writers and researchers assemble in Stewart’s office throughout the day, presenting revised scripts for the current show and updating him on the progress of longer-term segments, like a Wyatt Cenac search for Supreme Court contenders on Staten Island. There’s discussion of a possible Stewart-Colbert public event, a parody of Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally. “Maybe we would do a ‘March of the Reasonable,’ on a date of no particular significance,” Stewart says.


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