The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

Among comedians, Jon Stewart is a rare breed: a humanist. Transitioning seamlessly from stand-up comedy to social satire, he maintains trust in the innate decency and intelligence of ordinary people. Unlike Bill Maher, he isn’t estranged from the majority, nor is he a nihilist like Sarah Silverman, who often shocks audiences with dark humor about sensitive topics. As the host of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” he conducts interviews with celebrities, but he doesn’t exude the cheerfulness of Jay Leno or the caution of David Letterman. Nor does he adopt the persona of a cunning buffoon like Jimmy Kimmel. Despite his relatively short stature, Stewart carries himself with the confidence of a seasoned athlete—a team player who is always ready for friendly banter. Whether he’s dressed in a jacket and tie for his show or in a casual white T-shirt and V-neck sweater as a guest elsewhere, Stewart radiates an aura of geniality.

Stewart’s signature expression is a combination of a blank stare followed quickly by a mischievous grin—an amalgamation of bewilderment and indignation. And nothing currently baffles or infuriates him more than the conduct of his government. It’s not just the handling of the war in Iraq by the White House; Stewart finds numerous instances of evasive language (such as referring to “the coalition of the willing,” which he humorously notes is just England and Spain) and official arrogance (like describing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as “the forward soldier in the Pentagon’s ‘gloat offensive’”) that he’s able to compile a recent half-hour special on “The Daily Show” solely focusing on its coverage of the war. Stewart and his writers also keenly observe the way warfare and patriotism are crudely intertwined. When he coins a phrase for a bombed-out crater in Baghdad—”or, as the coalition forces call it, ‘a freedom hole’”—the euphemism could easily pass as an actual term used by the Bush administration or Fox News Channel.

Stewart is equally unrelenting in his criticism of the Democrats, whom he perceives as inexplicably hesitant to offer opposition (he labels Joe Lieberman as “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 Democrats lack a viable chance in the upcoming election that they’ve branded their coverage of the minority party as “The Race From the White House.”

In this endeavor, the host is supported by a team of correspondents whose demeanor and mannerisms, as described in a Comedy Central press release that itself reads like something crafted by a “Daily Show” staffer, closely resemble those of real news anchors. Leading this team are Steve Carell, who excels at portraying officiousness with a touch of nervous energy and is currently earning laughs alongside Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty,” and Stephen Colbert, a master at mimicking the solemn demeanor of government officials and television commentators. During the Iraq special, Colbert humorously suggested that in order to have prevented the war, Saddam Hussein would have needed weapons of mass destruction to destroy his alleged weapons of mass destruction before President Bush’s deadline.

Praised by many in the media for speaking out on issues that others shy away from, Stewart himself appears charmingly resistant to flattery. During a recent appearance on “Charlie Rose,” Stewart humbly brushed off Rose’s praise, refusing to accept the notion that he was “the guy” of the moment. While Rose typically reserves such compliments for figures like Henry Kissinger or Mort Zuckerman, Stewart rejected the notion outright, displaying a reflexive tendency to deflate his own ego. In a pointed remark about Jayson Blair, the disgraced former reporter for The New York Times, Stewart quipped, “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” appears to be at its weakest when it attempts to satirize show business. It’s as if Stewart and his team, more preoccupied with front-page news and the weighty issues of the post-9/11 world, have little interest in the absurdities of Hollywood. Consequently, segments such as Colbert’s report on racism in Hollywood (where the punchline is essentially that white actors are being forced to imitate black actors) often come across as too blunt to be truly humorous.

The show’s standout moments typically involve Stewart’s sardonic asides, often delivered after a punchline, such as when he quipped, “For a curmudgeonly wretch who’s suffered four heart attacks and lacks any capacity for joy, Dick Cheney is riding high….”

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