To the rabid fans of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart is an agent of catharsis for roiling anti-Bush rage.
To Rolling Stone, he’s America’s Anchor (or at least one of America’s Anchors, the guy who’s not Stephen Colbert). To readers, he’s the best-selling author of “America: The Book.” To movie buffs, as he is fond of reminding his snickering audience, he is the fourth male lead in the unfortunately titled “Death to Smoochy,” which falls somewhere between “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and “Ishtar” in the great scope of international cinema.
But Stewart sees himself as a comedian, which explains why he can’t step away from stand-up.
“It’s what I consider my job,” says Stewart. “In some respects, I am on a very fortunate side assignment. I’m studying abroad right now and quite enjoying it. But ultimately I will always go back to my job.”
Jersey boy Stewart, 44, started out doing stand-up but doesn’t provide the expected horror stories. “I was not treated like a honky-tonk performer at a biker bar before,” he admits. “When you’re in stand-up mode in clubs it’s different than working at 2 a.m. in front of the wait staff and a group of Dutch sailors on leave. I think that maybe what the show buys is the audience’s good will of wanting you to be good. One thing about stand-up is you really don’t talk to them after it’s over. You have to have your own internal barometer about how you feel about this stuff. That’s all you can go on.
“I don’t ride the pony as hard as I used to. On good nights in the old days, you’d think `I’m Pryor!’ If you had a bad night you’d think, ‘You have to fill out those applications for grad school now.’ But when you’ve been doing it for a long time, you can be forgiving even if you don’t give a peak performance.”
This information will come as no surprise: About comedy, Stewart, 44, is hilarious, as swiftly sardonic as he is on “The Daily Show,” which he has hosted since 1999.
On the phone from the show’s New York office, he discusses getting his eye gouged out in the horror film “The Faculty.” “I hope you appreciate that the substance that made my eye foam was quite caustic. The guys who did the special effects said, `It’s gonna be a little vinegar, a little powder, a little acid, and it reacts when it hits the back of your eye, but don’t worry.”’
He reports that it’s harder hosting the president of Pakistan than the Oscars. “You realize no matter what that guy does he is risking his life, and because of that you feel like, `Wow, I should read his book.’ As opposed to the Oscars, which was fun, but you have the sense that no matter what happened, Charlize Theron was going to be OK the next day.”
Stewart estimates that he does stand-up once a month and says that his material runs along the same lines as the withering satire on “The Daily Show.” “I’ve got what you’d imagine would be in a New York comedian’s trunk,” he says. “Nobody in the audience will say, `My God! He’s talking about particle physics! What is he doing?”’
He’ll almost certainly touch on politicians near and far, the clueless in general and the skyrocketing idiocy of TV media (“MSNBC’s new slogan: We’re insane. We’re absurd. We’re ridiculous”).
It’s this last development that has perhaps defined “The Daily Show’s” rise as pop-culture barometer and as a spot to find not only news but also barbed commentary on the increasingly ludicrous ways in which it is being packaged. Stewart and the show’s writers poke relentless fun at fatuous talking heads, ridiculing embarrassing lightweight reports almost as often as they deconstruct the more baffling policies of the Bush administration.
A fiery Stewart even appeared on “Crossfire” with Tucker Carlson in 2004 and said the show indulged in partisan hack jobs instead of honest debate. When Carlson accused him of lobbing softball questions at presidential hopeful John Kerry, Stewart famously shot back: “You’re on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making prank phone calls!”
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Stewart told Maureen Dowd, “I’m proud of what we do,” but “I don’t view us as people who lead social movements.” He doesn’t buy into the repeated, completely unsubstantiated reports that viewers, especially those under 30, get their news via his show. “My feeling is audiences today are incredibly savvy and sophisticated in terms of how they process material. I’d be shocked if 22 minutes of a comedy show provided the main course of their information meal of the day.”
The Bush White House has provided rich fodder, but Stewart won’t much miss it, even though he’s hardly running out of jokes about George W. and Friends. “As a human person with a sentient mind, I will not be unhappy if there is perhaps an administration with a slightly more competent outlook, ... and I have great faith in the office of the president in terms of providing truly absurd moments.”
Besides, he finds humor beyond politics. What really makes him laugh is “stupid (stuff). I wish I could sound erudite and highfalutin, but I laugh at very, very silly things. You just never know where the funny is coming from. That’s the beauty of the funny.”