America Is a Joke

Photo: Danielle Levitt.; Prop Styling by Chelsea Maruskin; Styling by Kaela Wohl; Grooming by Jody Morlock.

It’s hard to top a kick in the nuts.

Especially when the kicker is Linda McMahon, the Connecticut Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Pure comedy gold.

Jon Stewart watches the tape and doubles over with laughter. He and fifteen of The Daily Show’s writers, producers, and performers are gathered around a 40-inch flat-screen TV inside the show’s Eleventh Avenue offices early on a Thursday morning in August. Creating a segment for tonight’s Daily Show around this footage, from one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s harmless little skits, would seem to be easy. Maybe they can just run the nut shot repeatedly. Along with another clip of McMahon, the co-founder and former CEO of WWE, chugging a beer and drooling foam down her cheek.

Except that the goal here isn’t simply topping the kick in the nuts—it’s using the scrotum slam in the service of a larger point. Oh, Stewart & Co. enjoy a lowbrow laugh as much as the folks over at South Park; heck, next week they’re publishing a book that includes some excellent masturbation jokes. But Stewart and The Daily Show became America’s sharpest political satirists by aiming at least a little bit higher.

“Slut! Slut! Slut!” The next clip shows McMahon’s daughter entering the wrestling ring to a booming chant from the crowd. Followed by McMahon’s deadly serious face, in a Nightline interview. “Oh my God,” Stewart interjects. “How do you answer that as a politician? ‘Well, you don’t know my daughter’? Or, ‘You know, the use of the term slut was obviously inadvertent’?”

This sets off a spasm of free-associative jokes from the other writers. “Or, ‘You don’t understand—Americans love this shit.’ ”

“What if we ran the clip like Super Mario Brothers, and every time she kicks that guy in the nuts, a gold coin comes out?”

“Was McMahon endorsed by Triple H? Or was it Triple X?”

“That’s funny stuff,” Stewart says. “But let’s get a sense of where the media is trying to build the narrative and where the story lines are going to go.”

Segment producer Ramin Hedayati dials up a series of clips of everyone from Greta Van Susteren to George Stephanopoulos inveighing on the endorsement “proxy war” between Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or maybe it’s—

“Somebody last night said there’s no story line here,” Kevin Bleyer says. “Was it Chuck Todd?”

They run the clip of NBC’s Todd saying, “The one thing we learned is that the candidates that got the most votes won.” The room erupts in laughter. Until Times reporter Jeff Zeleny tells Todd that the media would have blamed Obama if the results in Colorado had come out differently. “See, that’s very telling right there,” Stewart says, “where he says, ‘Had this happened, here’s what we would have done.’ ”

“They’ve already read through the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book on this,” John Hodgman says.

Stewart shakes his head in disgust. “Let’s take a stab at ‘Thank God these primaries are coming to an end, because as far as a news-media narrative, they’ve blown through so many ideas already—‘angry voters,’ ‘ladies’ night,’ ‘proxy war’—it’s like dresses that they feel like they can’t wear to more than one movie premiere. So they’ve got to come up with a new story line. Maybe this one is endorsements; is the next one height?”

It wasn’t exactly an innocent year, given the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Columbine, and the two frames of a topless woman hidden in Disney’s The Rescuers. But since 1999, when Stewart took over as host, the context in which The Daily Show operates has been radically altered. Terrorist attacks, two wars, and a global economic meltdown have charged the political atmosphere. More important for Stewart and his show has been the media transformation. Print is crumbling. The mainstream TV networks have steadily shed seriousness and viewers. The Internet, a minor player at the turn of the century, has become overcrowded with opinion silos. As the new century began, Fox News Channel was finding its fair-and-balanced footing and Glenn Beck, an itinerant radio shock jock, was trying on a new persona, “Limbaugh Lite.” Today, Fox News is an evil empire and Beck just led a messianic Washington rally. America’s politicians, willingly or not, often seem like they’re actors in scripts created by cable producers.

Stewart made himself into the leading critic and satirist of the media-political complex, starting with “Indecision 2000,” The Daily Show’s parody of that year’s presidential campaign. His comedy is counterprogramming—postmodern entertainment but with a political purpose. As truth has been overrun by truthiness and facts trampled by lies, he and The Daily Show have become an invaluable corrective—he’s Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, although in keeping with the fragmented culture, he’s trusted by many fewer people, about 1.8 million viewers each night. Years ago, Stewart lost out to Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel for late-night network jobs, but the shifting media fortunes have made him the long-run winner, with vastly more job security and cultural influence than his conventional talk-show competitors—and most conventional journalists.

At a 9:30 a.m. meeting, Stewart and his writers mine the news for comedy.Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux for New York Magazine

“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.

The younger, less wise, less gray Jon Stewart, circa 2000.Photo: Everett Collection

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

See Also
A Writers’ Room Transcript That Shows How Daily Show Segments Get Made

America Is a Joke