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He stoops to conquer
Is Jon Stewart too smart for his own good? Not as long as he keeps up the dick jokes.

GEORGE W. BUSH was making his way through the first leg of his European tour last week. And The Daily Show was hot on his tail. With a graphic reading IN CONTINENT behind him, anchor Jon Stewart played a clip of Bush meeting with French president Jacques Chirac — letting "le bygones be le bygones," Stewart quipped. Next, Bush was seen telling a French audience that his first dinner in Europe since winning re-election would be with Chirac, with whom he has had notably prickly relations.

Bush: "That ought to say something."

Stewart: "It does say something — specifically, that the president couldn’t find an Arby’s in France."

Finally, Stewart played a clip of Bush asking European countries to contribute financially to the rebuilding of Iraq. "It’s the Bush version of the Pottery Barn rule," Stewart said, referring to the well-known Colin Powell formulation. "We broke it, you bought it."

But this was mere prelude to the main event: Stephen Colbert, standing in front of a backdrop that was supposed to be Brussels, to deliver an allegedly on-the-scene report. No one does the craven-journalist-in-the-tank shtick better than Colbert. He immediately made it clear that Bush’s goal was to stick it to the European allies — and that Colbert, a red-blooded American, was all for it.

Colbert answered a Stewart query about Old Europe (Western democracies such as Germany and France, which opposed the war) and New Europe (former Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary, which supported it) with this: "Rule of thumb is if you’re there to visit a museum, you’re in Old Europe. If you’re shooting Rocco’s All-Girl, All-Anal Adventure Number Eight, you’re in New Europe." Hmm. Okay.

And when Stewart asked what kind of a message Bush was trying to send Chirac, Colbert, channeling the president, replied, "I did what I wanted. I got re-elected. I’m not going anywhere. So let’s eat dinner and make the first course your feasting on my ball sac." Colbert grinned and leered, making it clear that nothing could make him happier than the prospect of Bush humiliating the president of France. You’d think he was doing a stand-up for Fox News. The studio audience howled.

SOME HALF-DOZEN years after assuming the anchor desk at The Daily Show and transforming what had been a celebrity-driven yukfest into biting political satire, the 42-year-old Stewart and his fellow performers and writers have reached the top of the heap. Stewart was named 2004 Entertainer of the Year by Entertainment Weekly. Stewart and company’s America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction — banned by Wal-Mart for its stunningly real-looking photographs of naked Supreme Court justices — remains near the top of the bestseller lists months after it was published. Last year, surveys showed that The Daily Show was the top news source for young viewers, and that Stewart’s audience was remarkably well-informed about current events. Recently Stewart signed a new, long-term contract that will carry him through the 2008 presidential campaign.

But with all this success have come the first signs of trouble. Because what makes The Daily Show work is its cracked, deadpan earnestness, which draws its inspiration from the Onion (a former Onion editor, Ben Karlin, is the show’s executive producer) and from such 1970s progenitors as the Dacron Republican-Democrat, the National Lampoon’s brilliant Sunday-newspaper parody. Being taken seriously — and, for that matter, expecting to be taken seriously — is the death of such humor. On the set of The Daily Show, nothing seems to have changed — and that’s good. Off set, though, is another story.

Last fall Stewart leaped out of character by going on CNN’s Crossfire and telling co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala that they were "hurting America." When Carlson demanded that Stewart "be funny," Stewart replied, "I’m not going to be your monkey." He was more right than wrong about the dumbing-down effect of shouting-heads shows, but it was a performance that received far more praise than it should have. (Stewart himself later told ET, "I was regretful about my conduct, not about what I was saying. I hold firm to that.") Among other things, there was a bullying quality to Stewart’s choosing to play media heavy on a program with minuscule ratings that would soon be canceled.

Last Memorial Day, in contrast, Stewart had no problem appearing on Fox News and slobbering all over Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, whose prime-time show is a far more toxic (and popular) version of Crossfire. After several minutes of Stewart willingly being their monkey, here’s how it ended:

Hannity: "Jon, congratulations on the success of the show. Thank you, my friend."

Stewart: "Thanks for having me. I’m glad to come on. It was fun."

Eeewww! What Stewart should have done was read this acidic excerpt from America (The Book): "When disputes on policy do arise, the two political parties provide the media with analysts that can argue the issue from the only two valid points of view, ‘left’ and ‘right.’ These disputes are settled graciously in media forums such as Hardball, Crossfire, and Fuck You with Pat Buchanan and Bill Press. In return for helping kill time, the media agrees not to analyze the truthfulness of the debate, only which team seems to be winning." It’s a genre that most definitely includes Hannity & Colmes. To be sure, The Daily Show regularly pokes fun at H&C. But Stewart wasn’t nearly as willing to stand up to the program’s hosts as he would later be with the hapless Carlson and Begala.

Far more ominously, CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves said in January that he may try to resuscitate his network’s zombified newscast by bringing in Stewart as a commentator. (Both CBS and The Daily Show’s cable network, Comedy Central, are part of the Viacom media conglomerate.) You’d like to think that Stewart himself would know better than anyone what a horribly stupid move that would be. He’d be defanged (it’s safe to assume there would be no references to anyone’s "ball sac," least of all the president’s), out of his element, hoping to draw a few mild chuckles from Bob Schieffer’s geriatric audience before cutting away to the next denture-adhesive ad.

Seriousness, pomposity, overexposure — these are three of the deadly sins that might bring down Stewart and The Daily Show. Let’s hope Stewart can steer clear; after all, he has Bill Maher as a cautionary lesson. Fortunately, for the moment, his program remains television’s most trenchant — and funniest — take on politics and the media.

IT’S NOT immediately obvious quite what makes The Daily Show tick. The first part of the program — Stewart at the anchor desk with a few parody news reports — is no different from what Saturday Night Live has been doing for the past 30 years. (The second half — Stewart interviewing actresses, media folks, and political figures — is part of a tradition that goes back several decades further than that.) The two main differences: Stewart is simply a better faux anchor than anyone SNL has been able to produce, with the possible exceptions of Chevy Chase and the pre-right-wing Dennis Miller; and the writing on The Daily Show is Simpsons-sharp.

Not all the time, though, and this is where Stewart’s skill as a comedian comes in. For instance, he recently opened the program by waving his pen at the audience and saying in a New York Jewish accent somewhat more downscale than his real New York Jewish accent, "Mmm ... 29 cents at the deli." It made absolutely no sense, but you couldn’t help but laugh. Watch often enough, and you’ll see that the program often relies on Stewart’s shameless mugging and easy likeability to paper over rough spots in the script.

Back to the European tour. Last Thursday, with the anchor-desk graphic now reading EUROPEAN PLACATION, Stewart had some fun with a speech Bush delivered in Germany.

Bush: "Let me talk about Iran — that’s a place where I’m getting good advice from European partners."

Stewart: "Ooh, good advice. Well, what did you learn from your European partners?"

Bush: "Iran is not Iraq."

Pause for laughter.

Stewart: "Although they do sound very similar. Are you sure you bombed the right one?"

Then on to Harvard University president Larry Summers, under fire for questioning the "intrinsic aptitude" of women as a possible reason for their lagging behind men in science and engineering. "Why do women always take so long in the particle accelerator?" asked Stewart. "And do they all have to go to the centrifuge at the same time?"

Stewart followed up his Summers mockery by playing a clip of a female Harvard student talking about the "barriers" she must overcome as a woman. "Yes," Stewart gravely intoned. "Just another barrier you have to face — as a Harvard graduate."

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Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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