Jon Stewart knows the key to democracy is an informed electorate. How he acts on this knowledge is another matter.
Some would say “The Daily Show,” a fake newscast where he’s the phony anchorman, is a half-hour of silliness meant to poke fun at politicians and everyone else who warrants it, with no higher goal than making you laugh.
Others argue that, by accepting the presidential race on its own twisted terms, “The Daily Show” can treat you to rare moments of clarity — while making you laugh, too.
“The Daily Show” makes a convincing case that, with journalism, bogus is the new real. But even in a political season when fact and fantasy seem more interchangeable than usual, Stewart shoots down any notion that “The Daily Show” is some kind of truth teller.
“Our meeting every morning is an explicit discussion of what’s going on in the world,” he allows. “But then the rest of the day is spent trying to hide that under layers of fart jokes.”
What “The Daily Show” can’t hide is its success. Airing at 11 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central, it averages a robust 1.1 million viewers, with the audience swelling to a record 2.4 million after the first presidential debate. Already the winner of a Peabody award, it snagged an Emmy last month for best variety series for the second year in a row, and another Emmy for writing.
There’s just one hitch.
“Doing a show every day is very ephemeral,” says Stewart during a recent interview at Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters in New York.
Trying to make something that lasts
“Whether it’s a bad show or a good show, the next day it’s gone,” he points out. “So we wanted to see if we could create something slightly more enduring as evidence of our incompetence.”
Stewart and 18 fellow “Daily Show” jesters have triumphed with “America (The Book),” which, published by Warner Books just in time for the election, entered the New York Times best-seller list last week at No. 1.
Subtitled “A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction,” the book will surely spur readers to inaction with its 14-page election guide.
But the 228 pages that come before offer a wealth of other resources in the form of a dead-on parody of a high-school civics textbook, complete with illustrations, study guide and educational activities (to learn about the U.S. Supreme Court, you can cut out paper dolls of the nine justices, all appallingly nude, and dress them in the accompanying judicial robes).
The book reaches all the way back to cavemen (who in their pre-cable primitiveness “had to get their political news from only three networks”) then addresses the founding of America, the three branches of government, and the rigors of a candidate on the campaign trail in a section called “Learning to Hate the Land You’ll Govern.”
It has information you never knew before, like how the Warren Commission concluded that President Kennedy died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Worth, all by itself, the book’s $24.95 price: A hilarious chapter deconstructing the media. (To understand how a cable news network manages to fill each 24-hour cycle with no more than seven minutes of actual news, check the daily rundown disclosed on pages 138 and 139.)
But why a mock textbook?
What's more boring than a textbook?“So much of what was out there already were polemics, books of emotional destruction,” Stewart explains. “The idea of this is to be the emotional opposite. What’s the coldest, most analytical book you could write? A textbook! We wanted this to be an overview of the system, as opposed to a personal kick in the (groin).”
Of course, who knew spoofing a textbook would be so hard?
“I can’t imagine what it takes to do one that’s historically accurate,” marvels Stewart, “if it took THIS much work to fake one.”
Besides, they had a show to do every day.
“But, luckily, at a certain point we all decided to start phoning in the show,” Stewart deadpans. “I said: ‘We should just drop the ball on the show.’ That was really the key to us getting the book done.”
Stewart, an executive producer and writer of “The Daily Show” as well as its host, came aboard in 1999. Taking over from Craig Kilborn, he infused the show with his own appealing blend of puckishness and self-effacement, silliness and smarts.
He’s a guy who can speak earnestly about his great pride in the show, then concede there are off-days “when we know we’re pumping out a sort of synthetic comedy polymer.”
Under Stewart, “The Daily Show” has earned credibility and trust (go figure!) — even serving as a primary news source for some viewers. But maybe that’s fitting, since, in the best tradition of satire, the show obviously strives to make sense of things on the way to making fun of them.
“We’re trying to process what’s going on,” Stewart says. “And we try not to be snarky for snarky’s sake. In writing a joke, we try to make the distinction between a multinational corporation and Carol Channing.”
But it’s a show, he adds, “that doesn’t honor the distinction between left wing and right wing, or liberal and conservative, or, in some respects, between Democrat and Republican. Breaking thought down into those bichromatic values seems silly.
“We only honor the distinction between real and absurdly fake,” he says reflectively, then grins. “And WE are absurdly fake.”