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America Is a Joke

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The road trips to Philly and to the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles reshaped The Daily Show, but not in the way Stewart had anticipated. “We were at that point merry pranksters—guys on a bus going, ‘That guy looks like Richard Gephardt!’ ” he says. “The more we got to meet people [in the media], it was—‘Oh! You’re fucking retarded! You don’t care!’ The pettiness of it, the strange lack of passion for any kind of moral or editorial authority, always struck me as weird. We felt like, we’re serious people doing an unserious thing, and they’re unserious people doing a very serious thing.”

The Bush-Gore Florida recount was a gigantic gift to “Indecision 2000,” if not the country. “We all had such blue balls from the jokes we wanted to do when Gore eventually conceded,” Colbert says. “And the night it happened, here we were doing them. I turned to Jon and said, ‘This is the most fun job on TV right now.’ ”

Media people’s lack of passion for moral or editorial authority always struck Stewart as weird.

After September 11, Stewart began to employ his newfound anger, becoming a voice of comic sanity in the whirlwind of real and manufactured fear. Segments like “America Freaks Out” and “Mess O’Potamia” punctured the false-patriotic sanctimony being peddled by the Bush administration. Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?” Stewart says. “It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters: ‘Oh, that’s the woman who’s very afraid of Black Panthers! I can’t wait to see what happens next. Oh, look, it’s the ex-alcoholic man who believes that Woodrow Wilson continues to wreak havoc on this country! This is exciting!’ Even the Fox morning show, the way they’re able to present propaganda as though it’s merely innocent thoughts occurring to them: ‘What is this “czar”? I’m Googling, and you know what’s interesting about a czar? It’s a Russian oligarch! Don’t you think it’s weird that Obama has Russian oligarchs, and he’s a socialist?’ Whereas MSNBC will trace the word and say, ‘If you don’t understand that, you’re an idiot!’ The mistake they make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.”

What has separated Stewart from ordinary carpers, though, is his willingness to call bullshit to the face of the bullshitters. On The O’Reilly Factor this past February, he nailed Fox News as “a cyclonic, perpetual emotion machine” that gins up legitimate political disagreements into “a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao.” In October 2004, after months of Daily Show jibes at CNN’s Crossfire, Stewart appeared as a guest and delivered a nuanced, impassioned plea for Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America” by peddling mindless bickering as partisan debate. Well, and he called Carlson a dick. “I don’t disown any of the criticism, but I probably could have handled it in a lighter, less sanctimonious way,” Stewart says. “What’s been misconstrued is the idea that I’m saying I’m ‘just a comedian.’ I’m not saying I’m just a comedian. I think comedy is harder than what they do. We have to process things in a manner that’s more thoughtful.”

The right provides better raw material, but Stewart’s complaints are bi-partisan. “Obama ran as a visionary and leads as a legislator. That’s been the most disappointing thing about him,” he says. “People were open to major changes, and they didn’t get it. I mean, he was pretty clear about some shit: ‘We’re not gonna sacrifice values for safety. I’m closing Guantánamo.’ Jettisoning Shirley Sherrod showed he doesn’t quite understand this game yet, does he? He’s more than willing to sacrifice someone to the voraciousness of the news cycle than to any sense of what his narrative is. I can’t quite figure out who they are.”


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