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America Is a Joke

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Stewart is a somewhat left-of-center Bloomberg/Springsteen Democrat, but he’s avoided outright cause-mongering beyond emceeing charitable events. “We’re not provocateurs, we’re not activists; we are reacting for our own catharsis,” Stewart says. “There is a line into demagoguery, and we try very hard to express ourselves but not move into, ‘So follow me! And I will lead you to the land of answers, my people!’ You can fall in love with your own idea of common sense. Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you’re going, ‘But of course, I’m fucking idiotic.’ It’s why we don’t lead a lot of marches.”

And he clings to the naïve hope that the legitimate news media will get its act together and become a resolute force for truth and good government. “You have to imagine someone is going to come along in a nonpartisan fashion and create a similarly tenacious organization as Fox,” Stewart says. “There’s got to be a way to translate people’s ability to be titillated into a way to inform them that’s not necessarily PBS. There’d be money in that.”

Tim Kaine called. The former governor of Virginia and current head of the Democratic National Committee volunteers to appear on The Daily Show. “How about we have him on when we go to Washington?” Stewart says to Hillary Kun, the supervising producer who books guests.

The Daily Show hit full stride with its coverage of the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential campaign. Ten years later, the Supreme Court decision that broke the deadlock is still reverberating, especially in the dead-end partisanship of our nation’s capital. Stewart returns to D.C. next month for a week of shows pegged to one prime showcase of the dysfunction, the midterm elections. Small problem: Congress, along with most other professional pols, will be out on the campaign trail (Kaine came to New York last week for his grilling). “Yes,” Stewart says, “when you show up to stick it to The Man, you always want to do it when The Man is not home.”

A decade of bad politics has made for a lifetime of comedy fodder, however. Each day at four o’clock, Stewart ducks into his office bathroom and changes from T-shirt and chinos to black suit and a muted blue tie. In the early seasons of The Daily Show, Stewart looked as if he’d borrowed his older brother’s suit, his hairstyle bordered on a pompadour, and he was thin to the point of waifish. At 47 years old, he’s suave in Armani, his black hair is rapidly giving way to gray, and he’s quit smoking and gained a few pounds, most of it from the Swedish Fish stockpiled in bowls throughout the office.

Stewart bounds down two flights of stairs, navigates a series of twisting hallways, and emerges into the empty Daily Show studio for rehearsal. He sits behind his desk and reads rapidly through today’s script in a low mumble as cameramen practice their moves and video clips pop up on monitors. Then it’s time to really create the show.

For the next hour, Stewart paces diagonally across a windowless eight-by-eight-foot room, sucking on an iced coffee and grabbing handfuls of candy. Projected in front of him on one wall is the current script; beneath it, at two keyboards, sit Kristen Everman, a production assistant, and Kira Klang Hopf, an indefatigable senior producer. Head writer Steve Bodow and executive producers Josh Lieb and Rory Albanese perch on small couches. As the studio audience files into its seats down the hall and tonight’s musical guests, Arcade Fire, tune their guitars in the greenroom, Stewart and his team go on a nonstop, rapid-fire jag that tears up and rewrites nearly three-quarters of the script. The typist transcribes, cuts, and pastes; as visual gags pop feverishly into Stewart’s brain, Hopf calls down to the art department, ordering up new video montages and a collage of an “Anchor-Me Terror Baby” to go with a reference to the “birthright citizenship” debate. Many of the new ideas will be scrapped only moments later.

“We begin with results from Tuesday night’s exciting primaries—so exciting we needed a day to cool down so we could report it dispassionately. And also we didn’t know they’d happened,” Stewart dictates in his on-camera voice, as Everman types the words into the revised script and onto the wall. “Take out, ‘We didn’t know they happened,’ ” Stewart says. “What was the theme? What narratives would emerge. If you remember, the May 19 primaries were known for their passion.”

“Check the date on the primaries,” Albanese says to Hopf, who Googles the facts.


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