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The running joke has been that for many Americans, their only source of news is “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

The punchline is how much better off America might be because of it.

Led by executive producer and host Stewart, “The Daily Show” has not only enticed an apathetic wing of American political society to care about issues, it has also become an unlikely role model for what a hardcore news program should strive for.

In both politics and comedy, Stewart has been that holy grail: a game-changer. Not only has Stewart hooked some of those who would otherwise spurn the news; he has raised their expectations, infusing a new generation with a healthy dose of skepticism. And for old hands who have been watching the deterioration of political analysis on TV, Stewart has been a source of renewed hope.

Stewart has neither abandoned being funny nor settled for it. Instead, he has helped his self-proclaimed “fake news” show serve as a reality check for American politics. However antiestablishment the Comedy Central program might be, it’s nearly impossible to ignore how sharply it tears down falsehoods.

“Jon has the good sense to get out of the way and let the material and in some cases the politicians themselves speak for themselves,” says “NBC Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Brian Williams. “He has an actor’s ability, a standup comic’s touch, the sensibility of an angry citizen, and I’ve always called him a separate branch of government — I think he is an essential part of modern media and society.”

In the TV world, Stewart has been validated by the 11 primetime Emmys he has won this decade (he began hosting the show in 1999), along with two Peabody Awards. And during the 2008 campaign, the show’s audience has mushroomed. On Oct. 2, “Daily” set a record for total viewers. Six days later, the series broke the record — by more than 500,000.

Though he shares credit with executive producer David Javerbaum, co-executive producers Kahane Corn and Josh Lieb, head writer Steve Bodow and his relentlessly clever correspondents, Stewart has reinvented political comedy — and his timing couldn’t be more critical.

“On the food triangle of political knowledge of our daily diet … Jon is somewhere near nuts and legumes,” Williams says. “If he is the only nutrient on that triangle, I worry. If it’s nothing or Jon Stewart, by all means watch ‘The Daily Show.’ I think Jon, chief among us, would say, make me a part of a daily balanced diet.”