“I have never been to a television taping before,” Jon Stewart tells his packed “The Daily Show” audience. “This is exciting.”
This rainy afternoon, Stewart and an intimate 100-fan crowd mark time while former cast member Steve Carell and crew prep to shoot two Produce Pete segments back-to-back for later use. Time passes.
“Hope you packed a lunch,” Stewart tells the crowd, which is quick to laugh.
Seated at his electric-blue desk, the host performs his trademark script-scribble, though the camera’s off.
“What are you writing?” a woman asks.
” ‘Dear Oprah …,’ ” Stewart says.
He switches to “real” and explains that since he quit smoking — two packs a day –he’s found it helpful to doodle.
“Have you thought of ‘Produce Pete’ the movie?” Stewart calls to Carell, who’s tucked into a corner, behind his chef’s station.
“You produce it,” Carell quips. Several audience members giggle knowingly.
Though Stewart likes to play it down, he finds himself in high-power producer mode a lot these days.
Last summer, a live post-debate episode of his fake newsshow’s “Indecision 2004” lured a series-high 2.4 million viewers to Comedy Central. And for a second straight presidential campaign season, the “Daily Show’s” groundbreaking parody of network election coverage earned it a Peabody Award.
High ratings and critical acclaim coincided with the best-selling success of “America (The Book): A Guide to Democracy Inaction,” written by Stewart, “Daily Show” exec producer Ben Karlin and head writer David Javerbaum, as well as other members of the Emmy-winning show’s staff.
Comedy Central signed the comic and his company, Busboy Productions, through 2008 for a first-look option on TV projects. Stewart also snagged big-league leeway to sell ideas elsewhere should the cable station pass.
So many possibilities –what’s his next move?
“Two words,” he says, taking a seat behind a cluttered desk in his roomy Manhattan office. “Fishing Channel.”
How long with Comedy Central?
“Until I embarrass myself,” he says, “And then probably two years after that. I will stay until the voice of the show and my comedic sense have become tedious and sad, and then, hopefully, I’ll scrape another couple of years out of it … I wish I had better answers, but I don’t think like that.”
Try to think like that, for fun. If Viacom would let you create any show, what show would you create?
“(Viacom) will let anybody create any show,” he says. “All you have to do is walk in: ‘Hello, sir.’ If you have a briefcase … they’re very impressed by briefcases.”
Gossip says he might be asked to replace David Letterman some day. How would his bogus news antics fare on latenight network TV?
“I just don’t know,” he says, looking away. “The main thing for us is to keep our barometer internal and tuned correctly. It’s about creating the right kind of pitch … trying not to hit too many sour notes, and that doesn’t deviate based on the medium. I mean, it’s all television, whether it’s in single digits on your dial or you have to go past Spanish people playing soccer.”
He remembers an odd fact — one that he’s not making up — and speaks with genuine enthusiasm.
“We’re on CNN International. It’s literally broadcast around the world! We have no fucking idea of it — none … but it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t change how good (the show) is.”
If internal barometer is everything, what’s Busboy’s ethos?
“I think we have the ability to digest material and create something new, and we would like to do that. … We want to do (with Busboy) what we did with the book, which is not to extend ourselves to the point where we can’t control the content,” he says. “The main thing that I think I’ve learned is the more control you have, the more satisfied you’ll be with the final product, success or failure. We’re not franchising Boston Markets here. … There’s no dream of global domination.”
If not global domination, would he like to, say, model the company after Letterman’s Worldwide Pants?
“Does someone pay their overhead?” he asks, before taking a pause. “Yeah, we’d like to do all that.”
What kinds of projects would he like to produce?
“We have a couple of ideas, but I’m very accustomed to the adrenal rush and general junkie-like pace that television is. You know, having a stupid idea at 10 in the morning and seeing it realized at 6:30 is a very difficult paradigm to get away from.”
Are there more hilarious books on the horizon?
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, then makes a squeaky sound to shut down the question. He will admit that the next book’s format won’t be quite so ambitious as that of “America,” which intricately parodied the average high-school textbook.
“We wanted (‘America’) to have that sense of authority that the show projects — that false sense of gravitas — and the textbook seemed to be the driest, most authoritative and easily structured, but, boy, were we wrong on that. It’s so dense. We pursued a schedule similar to a dance-a-thon.”
Perhaps in the absence of any other mechanism, Stewart has become the de facto quality control for TV news. Last October, he appeared on “Crossfire” and censured hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to their anxious faces. The rebuke proved so devastating that CNN CEO Jonathan Klein cited Stewart’s appearance while announcing the cancellation of “Crossfire.”
Is Stewart becoming a serious newsman?
“The unbelievably inarticulate and not artful way I did it on ‘Crossfire’ is not what this show is,” Stewart says. “This show is a translation of that explicit passion into hopefully something more palatable. I mean, God forbid, I couldn’t watch me do that 20 minutes a night.”
What about the rumor that Viacom co-COO/co-prexy Leslie Moonves might ask Stewart to report the actual news?
“If (Moonves) is at the point where he says, ‘Would you fill Dan Rather’s shoes?’ he already would have made so many bad decisions leading up to that point that he would no longer be the head of CBS. So he would literally just be a crazy homeless man … I think certain things he said probably got taken way out of context.”
Wasn’t Moonves said to be keen on Stewart’s ability to attract the 18-34 market?
“But that’s for comedy,” he says. “That’s the content of what we’re doing. I guarantee you the fastest way to lose the audience would be to not do jokes anymore.”
What’s the peril of a comedian being taken seriously?
“Who knows? I don’t think there is one, because that’s not our goal — and you know you can’t control how people perceive you. …There is no peril to that because it has nothing to do with how we do the show every day. I don’t recall a meeting ever where we thought we’d send (correspondent Stephen) Colbert to Baghdad in a fake mustache and a beret, and someone said, you know, ‘How is the Wall Street Journal going to view this?’ ”
As Carell wraps his second Produce Pete segment, to huge cheers, Stewart sets his face on his desk. He’s cracking up, too. Carell tiptoes past and Stewart high-fives him.
Freelance writer Betsy Boyd teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.