Somewhere along the line — specifically, somewhere on the long, torturous 2004 campaign trail — “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” stopped being America’s leading “fake news” show and provided at times a more substantive take on the issues of the day than many “real” newscasts.
In the nexus where entertainment and information, politics and comedy meet is Jon Stewart’s four-times-a-week interview segment — where the host gets cozy with guests from across the cultural spectrum and walks a tightrope between conflicting agendas.
In a recent two-week period, “Daily Show” guest spots included not just standard celeb guests Bruce Willis, Ozzy Osbourne and the Rev. Al Green, but also New York Times editorialist/economist Paul Krugman, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and vet CBS News correspondent Tom Fenton. In some cases, the talk passed from mere yukkery into earnest buttoned-up political discourse.
The Stewart couch is increasingly becoming a must-stop, not just for movie-hawking actors and book-touring authors, but for the top tier of American politicians.
“The interview evolved the same way the rest of the show evolved,” explains producer Ben Karlin. “We used to treat the interview segment as a ‘who’s available, out promoting a movie, TV show or book.’ Then we realized that because the show’s format is different than a traditional talkshow, why can’t we tailor the guest segment to our particular interests and try to book some people who aren’t making the Conan, Letterman, Leno rounds? We don’t want to spurn interesting celebrity folk, but we realized that the show is flexible enough to have an esoteric author on or a policy wonk or journalist.
“I think Jon is flexible and talented enough,” Karlin continues, “to one day interview Jennifer Love Hewitt about ‘Garfield’ and the next day have Fareed Zakaria from Newsweek on, and it doesn’t feel like that’s two different shows.”
Karlin balks, however, at the notion that despite toe dips into seriousness, the show has veered significantly from its entertainment mandate. “We feel gleefully unrequired to be informative. The politicians come on with their own agendas, and all we try to do is poke around and try to have fun and find an ounce of humanity in these people.”
For some critics, however, Stewart’s tightrope walk is more a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. In October, Stewart made waves when he appeared on CNN’s (since-canceled) political sparring show “Crossfire” and pointed a finger at its hosts.
“You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” Stewart charged.
However, after that brief dip into partisan politics, Stewart retreated behind a banner of comedy, essentially mocking Carlson’s retort — that he wastes spots with influential guests like Democratic presidential nom John Kerry with “suck-up” dialogue.
Notably, as Carlson readied a clip of “The Daily Show’s” Kerry interview, Stewart shot back, “If you want to compare yourself to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.”
The incident prompted media critic Ken Tucker to wonder in New York magazine whether Stewart would stand behind his critiques and fully engage the political arena or whether he would ultimately fall back on “monkey boy” shtick. “My money’s on the monkey to win out,” Tucker wrote.
On his show, Stewart dances around seriousness like a boxer, probing the national conversation for weak spots but quickly retreating to his corner when seriousness makes its charge.
In recent interviews, Stewart conducted nearly comedy-free discussions with Krugman and Fenton, but donned the joker’s mask determinedly in a slightly tense face off with NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who appeared on the couch after a “Daily Show” segment took to task an NBC report outing the name of a judge in Saddam Hussein’s trial.
As Williams — noticeably peeved — played the interview entirely straight, Stewart mugged his way through, urging Williams to “settle” when he became animated.
As for mistakes made by “The Daily Show” while chronicling flaws in NBC’s report, well, Stewart had a comic explanation for those. “We don’t check facts. We reported based on what we thought happened.”
In Stewart’s view, however, attempting to find the balance between the serious and the frivolous is what gives the show its vitality.
“We try to mix the passion that we feel about things with hopefully an artful treatment of it, so that it infuses the funny with a dash of scatological and sincere, and the occasional didactic and strident moment, and hopefully not too much of that. But the end product, the thing that I think we all want, is something funny and satisfying, that’s all. But it is more than anything a selfish pursuit of your own goals.”
(L.A.-based writer Richard Rushfield edits the satirical review LA Innuendo.)