Among comedians, Jon Stewart is that rare thing: a humanist. Having moved with unusual ease from stand-up spritzer to social satirist, he trusts in the basic decency and intelligence of ordinary people. He’s not alienated from the majority, the way Bill Maher is; nor is he at heart a nihilist like late-night staple Sarah Silverman, who devastates audiences with jokes about rape, AIDS, and the Holocaust. Presiding over The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, he interviews celebrities, but Stewart is not jolly like Leno or wary like Letterman, nor does he play the wily oaf, as Jimmy Kimmel does. Even though Stewart is, as he frequently points out, on the short side, he carries himself like a broad-shouldered athlete — a team player, suited up (in jacket and tie for the show, in white T-shirt and V-necked sweater when guesting elsewhere) for jovial combat.
Stewart’s favorite expression is the blank stare followed quickly by a wolfish grin: bafflement and outrage commingled. And nothing baffles or outrages him more right now than the way his government is behaving. It’s not just the manner in which the White House has conducted the war in Iraq: Heaven knows he found so many instances of weasel wording (”’the coalition of the willing,’ [or what] everyone else calls England and Spain”) and official haughtiness (describing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as ”the forward soldier in the Pentagon’s ‘gloat offensive”’) that he was able to compile a recent half-hour special on ”The Daily Show”’s coverage of the war alone. Stewart and his writers have also been acutely attuned to the way war making and patriotism have been coarsely intertwined. When he coined a phrase for a bombed-out Baghdad crater — ”or, as the coalition forces call it, ‘a freedom hole”’ — the euphemism could easily have been an actual term used by the Bush administration or the Fox News Channel.
Stewart is also bracingly merciless when it comes to the Democrats, whom he finds inexcusably fearful of providing party opposition (Joe Lieberman is tagged ”the candidate for people who want to vote for Bush but don’t think [Bush is] Jewish enough”). ”The Daily Show” is so convinced that the Dems don’t have a chance in the upcoming election, they’re bannering their coverage of the minority party as ”The Race From the White House.”
In all this, the host is ably backed by a team of correspondents ”whose manner and gestures,” to quote from a Comedy Central press release that itself reads like something written by a ”Daily Show” staffer, ”approximate those of real newspeople.” Foremost among them are Steve Carell, adept at rabbity officiousness and currently stealing laughs from Jim Carrey in ”Bruce Almighty,” and Stephen Colbert, a master at replicating the grim sternness of government officials and TV commentators. In the Iraq special, Colbert posited the idea that in order to have prevented the war, Saddam Hussein would have needed weapons of mass destruction to destroy his denied weapons of mass destruction in time to make President Bush’s deadline.
Praised throughout the media because he says what so many in the media cannot, Stewart himself seems beguilingly resistant to flattery. When he recently appeared on ”Charlie Rose,” Stewart sheepishly demurred when Rose — the opposite of Stewart, a French-cuff courtier of power — declared, ”This is your moment: You are the guy!” (This was Charlie unscrewing a more down-market tub of the verbal table wax he uses to buff the burnished egos of, say, Henry Kissinger or Mort Zuckerman.) Stewart was having none of it, however; his reflexive self-deflation inspired one of the few truly startling things anyone has said about New York Times serial deceiver Jayson Blair: ”As a fake anchorman of a fake news show…I, for one, am proud to see our commitment to journalistic falsehood catching on.”
Interestingly, ”The Daily Show” is at its weakest when satirizing show business. It’s as if Stewart and his staff, consumed like good Manhattanites with front-page news and a lingering raised consciousness about the real world post-9/11, don’t have much interest in Left Coast absurdity. Thus bits like Colbert’s report on Hollywood racism (the joke: Whites are being forced to imitate blacks in movies like ”Bringing Down the House”) are frequently too on the nose to be funny.
The best moments of ”The Daily Show” are Stewart’s slanted asides, frequently delivered over a previous punchline, as when he tossed out the corrosive intro ”For a curmudgeonly wretch who’s suffered four heart attacks and lacks any capacity for joy, Dick Cheney is riding high….”
Okay, so maybe ”humanist” is a little too highfalutin and generous a praise for such a casually savage swipe. But, man, did I laugh.