New York — When “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” “sends” correspondents like Stephen Colbert to Kabul or Washington, it really just sticks them in front of a screen in the show’s Gotham studios.
The latenight talker might be national in scope, with its mock evening news format and skewed topicality, but its sensibility is very much grounded in New York’s kinetic, often intangible undercurrents.
“The city itself lends an energy you can’t fake,” says “Daily Show” anchor Jon Stewart from his office above the studios on West 54th Street. “We’ve taken the show on the road and it’s fun, but the shows are different.”
Head writer Ben Carlin says Stewart brings a New Yorker’s inherent skepticism and a distinct non-Hollywood feel to the program.
But co-creator and executive producer Madeleine Smithberg emphasizes that the city’s influence reaches beyond the show’s frontman. “We are a New York show,” she says. “New York shapes who we all are and how we think and see the world.”
Smithberg is a Manhattan native but the staff, like much of New York, is a mishmash, with Californians, Kansans and even a Cuban-Finnish editor. (Stewart claims “70% of the staff doesn’t even speak English. The show is done phonetically, in parts, and then assembled later on.”)
But coping with the city soon makes everyone a New Yorker. Smithberg says much of comedy is about the release of tension and New York living generates plenty of tension. “My theory is that it’s because no one has enough closet space. And we’re bitter, because we spend so much on our rent or mortgage and on parking. Bitterness makes for good satire”
Carlin adds that enduring New York’s challenges (the subway breaking down and “living like veal”) provides a “weird bond with everyone that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. We deal with the minutiae that make life here unique and we filter everything about the show through that.”
The city’s challenges may make its comedy more dynamic, yet Stewart argues that it’s the city’s positive forces that fuel the show. “I don’t see this town as an obstacle course, as ‘Survivor: New York,'” says Stewart, who grew up in New Jersey but now lives downtown in Manhattan, with his wife and assorted pets.
“I think this city has the vibe of opportunity,” Stewart continues. “This city is what it is because people have come here to fulfill something for themselves. People talk about L.A as a dream town but it’s not. L.A. is a fake place in a desert that steals water from Northern California.”
And Stewart, Smithberg and Carlin say their show is funnier because they don’t live and work in a one-industry town like Washington or Los Angeles. New York’s cosmopolitan environment means their friends work in other industries and they remain more engaged with the real world, an essential trait on a program about reacting to the news in a way in which America can relate.
“It is important that people have their own real lives to deal with and that probably does help inform the content,” Stewart says. “Life is more your life here. As soon as you leave this building nobody could give a damn about what you do.”
In L.A., he says, people are always looking just past you, worrying about the next thing. “Out there, there’s a sense that a better show business world is just beyond your reach,” he says. New York, with its intensity, relentless pace, crowded sidewalks and dangerous intersections, keeps your eyes on the ground in front of you.
“Here there isn’t a tendency to look beyond,” Stewart says. “You focus on what you’re doing, in an obsessive, hair-pulling, bald spot in the back, terrible hives way.”