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America Is a Joke

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The younger, less wise, less gray Jon Stewart, circa 2000.  

The mix of satire-in-progress and office chitchat creates some strange juxtapositions. “There’s an elements meeting later for ‘Not the White Man’s Bitch,’ ” co-executive producer Kahane Cooperman says. “Hey, you know Bee-Jones’s baby was born?” she says, referring to the latest spawn of Daily Show correspondents—and Canadian imports—Samantha Bee and Jason Jones.

“Yes!” Stewart says happily. “Seven pounds thirteen ounces!”

“Send ’em a six pack of Molsons,” says Josh Lieb, an executive producer.

“That’s what they should do,” Stewart says, building on the riff, “have a couple more kids and be known as ‘The Molsons.’ ”

“Three kids under 5 years old,” says Cooperman, herself the mother of two children. “My God.”

“Well, four kids,” Stewart says—drawing laughs without having to spell out that Jason Jones is the additional toddler.

Stewart himself has a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter with his wife of ten years, Tracey. The family lives in Tribeca, and one morning Stewart strolls over to Bubby’s, a comfort-food neighborhood institution, where the owner greets him with a hug. A table of twelve calls out “We love you!” as Stewart walks past. He smiles and thanks them, but is happier to hide under his Mets hat, settle into a corner table in the back, and dig into a bowl of grits. “Jon is exactly the same guy he’s always been, only with money,” says Denis Leary, a friend since 1986. “He knows that the moment he really believes he’s important, the funny goes away and he becomes Bill O’Reilly, except shorter and Jewish.”

Stewart isn’t one of those comics who is always, exhaustingly, on. But he’s never entirely off, either, his mind and tongue moving quickly. This morning brings another round of stories trumpeting polls opposing the “ground-zero mosque,” which The Daily Show has gleefully reminded people is actually slated for a location about three blocks from the World Trade Center site, on the hallowed ground of a former Burlington Coat Factory. “The wisdom of the masses is not always … wise,” Stewart says. “You could put a lot of things to a vote—you could have put anti-miscegenation laws to a vote, and that would have passed pretty handily. Either all people are created equal—or they’re not. You’re either buying into the original premise of America—or you’re not.”

Beneath the many, many dick jokes, this was the message of America (The Book), the parody American-history textbook Stewart and The Daily Show writers published in 2004. This month brings Earth (The Book), a parody history of … Earth. The conceit this time is that before disappearing from the planet—owing to ecological catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, or a pandemic that killed Dr. Nicole Kidman—humankind has left behind a guide to our existence for alien visitors. Or, more likely, alien conquerors. Besides forever settling the chicken-or-egg conundrum, Earth is a densely packed tour through everything from milestones in human development (“Our conquest of fire made it possible to safely consume meat and commit insurance fraud”) to pornography (“It wasn’t very popular. Not at all”). “Doing the show is relentless in a very specific vein. The book is our same process but a very different kind of humor,” Stewart says. “I like that it’s not ephemeral and not part of the day-to-day conversation. It was nice for people to use different muscles in writing the book. And to not see their families.”

Stewart’s interests have always been ecumenical. He grew up in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, as Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, the second son of a physicist father who once worked for RCA Labs and a mother who taught elementary-school special education; his parents divorced when Stewart was 9. He went to William & Mary, playing on the college soccer team and graduating without any particular career plan, eventually moving to New York and taking the stage on open-mike night at the Bitter End.

“I wish I could say there was a magic formula,” he says, “but I just kept working at it.” Trying to keep up with new comedy-club-circuit friends including Leary, Dave Attell, and Louis C.K. helped sharpen Stewart’s act, which was topical without being overtly political. Hosting a short-lived but clever MTV talk show in the early nineties put Stewart into the late-night derby, and in January 1999 he replaced Craig Kilborn, the original Daily Show host. The expectations weren’t especially high. Stephen Colbert remembers the reaction of his wife, Evelyn McGee, who’d been friendly with Stewart years earlier. “When Jon got The Daily Show, she said, ‘Wait a second—he wasn’t the funny one in our group,’ ” Colbert says. “ ‘He was the quiet one in the corner with a beer.’ ”

One thing Stewart knew was that he wanted to give The Daily Show more weight. “Early on, we had a bit about the 40th anniversary of Barbie,” he says. “Some of the jokes were about how ridiculous a role model Barbie was for young girls, and the other jokes were about how ugly the girl in the Barbie commercial was. I’m not so sure that worked.” Stewart’s Daily Show really began with “Indecision 2000,” its “coverage” of the millennial electoral mess that gave the world President George W. Bush. Colbert joined the cast full-time right before the start of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. “I was never interested in political comedy: ‘Hey, Ted Kennedy’s hitting the bottle again!’ ” Colbert says. “Jon taught me how to do it so it would be smart. He encouraged everyone to have a point of view. There had to be a thought behind every joke.”


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