“Can you find one more person using the word ‘anger’?” Lieb asks a video researcher.
Stewart’s pacing has switched to the Frankenstein monster’s stiff-armed lumber; now he’s doing the bolt-neck’s booming voice: “Ugh! Primary voter angry! School-funding referendum vote ‘no!’ ”
Back to Stewart’s natural tone: “But by the June primaries the anger had dissipated.”
“Leaving nothing but the sweet smell of estrogen,” Lieb says, cracking up the room. Clips of real newspeople proclaiming “ladies’ night” are inserted. Stewart picks up the pace: “The June primaries—ladies drank free!” Now he’s singing, and dancing his pathetic white-man’s disco shuffle. “Oh, yes, it’s ladies’ night …”
As Stewart speeds along, hours of work by writers and producers are cut, replaced by improvised digressions. A clip of a Fox News host hyping Tuesday’s Senate primary as the thing that “put Colorado on the national scene” provokes Stewart to ask Hopf, “Will you look at the forces behind Colorado’s statehood?” He peers over Hopf’s shoulder at the Wiki answers, then starts riffing in his best mock-serious anchor tone: “Not to be a stickler, but I believe it was the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1861 that originally put Colorado on the national scene, leading to statehood, ratified in 1876.”
Lieb: “Then they discovered beer in 1901.”
Albanese: “Then a giant woman in a bikini tapped the Rockies.” A producer begins frantically searching for the relevant photo from a Coors Light ad.
Stewart: “Of course, tragically, three years after that, a 50-foot-woman stuck a beer tap into one of their mountains. In the ensuing floods, thousands were killed.”
Lieb: “The ensuing beer-valanche.” When the laughter dies down, Lieb tacks on one more inside-comedy beat. “That’s actually Bruce Vilanch’s brother, Beer Valanche.”
No matter how far the inspired silliness wanders, Stewart steers everyone back to the theme. When the media drumbeat was “rage at incumbents,” 98.5 percent of incumbents won their primaries; on “ladies’ night” a solid majority of male candidates triumphed. “The point is,” Stewart says, “that just because a media narrative is utter bullshit doesn’t mean we won’t get another one. So this month’s primary has a ‘proxy battle’ theme.” He stops. Something’s stumping him. “The kick-in-the-nuts thing—hmmm,” he murmurs.
Albanese knows what this means. “Are we losing the kick in the nuts?” He sounds depressed. “Wwwhew.”
“I think ‘slut, slut, slut’ is better,” Stewart says. Linda McMahon’s testicle-kick video and all the jokes associated with it are vanishing from the wall script. Albanese sighs. Stewart stares. “I have an idea,” he says, then starts dictating again. “ ‘McMahon’s ability to overcome footage from her entire career was impressive’—now add a little piece of the kick in the nuts at the top of this,” he says. “Then, ‘Chuck Todd, help me out. What was the theme?’ ”
Up comes a clip of the NBC political analyst saying, “There was no big theme.”
Now Stewart explodes in mock horror: “Wait—the theme is no theme? Why do I always fall for this? Every time I lean over and look in and what do I get?”
When that line, during taping, is followed by the full McMahon foot-to-crotch, it sparks the biggest laugh of the night, probably for the viewers at home too. And maybe everyone learned another little Daily Show lesson in media criticism—confronted with the spectacle of the media-political complex, the only possible response is laughter. The studio audience, though, got an extra sermon. Every night before starting the show Stewart takes a few questions. This time a woman asks what he likes most about living in the city.
Stewart pauses, looking at the floor for a few seconds. “I grew up in a smaller town in New Jersey,” he says quietly, “and even though we were only an hour outside New York, I remember telling people I wanted to live in the city, and they said”—he puts on a belligerent dumb-ass voice—“ ‘Okay, good luck in the gay-pride parade!’ ”
When the laughs fade, he continues. “Very provincial. So the idea that everything was not only accepted, but appreciated, was my favorite thing about New York. But also that there was a certain energy, that people were like, ‘You know what, fuck it, I’m going to do something I want to do.’ ”
The audience is silent. Stewart punctures the earnestness. “And now I just think, ‘Wow, this is crowded.’ ” More laughs. “So, I got old.”
He made it here; hokey as it is, he wants to do his little part to ensure everyone—Muslim, gay, Sarah Palin—continues to have that same chance, not just in New York, but in America. “You want to add something to the world that is clarifying and not obscuring,” he’d told me earlier. “But I know the difference between real social change and what we do. You know what we are? Soil enrichers. Maybe we can add a little fertilizer to the soil so that real people can come along and grow things.” Somewhere here there’s a wisecrack to make about politics, journalism, and manure. But if there’s any clear and profound moral to be gleaned from our recent absurd era in American history, it's that we're better off leaving the jokes to Jon Stewart.