Stewart has real flair for fake news

Media says self-deprecating host is a standout

Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” asked the New York Times last August in a lengthy Arts & Leisure profile. Earlier in 2008, Vanity Fair placed “The Daily Show” host No. 44 on its listing of “New Establishment.” Then there was the survey a couple of years back by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press where he was named the fourth-most admired journalist in America.

Not bad for a standup comic from New Jersey known for a brief stint hosting an MTV yakker and a co-starring role in “Death to Smoochy.”

All the media accolades, in addition to the show’s two Peabody Awards and 12 Emmys, stand in stark contrast to Stewart’s appraisal: “I am the fake Lou Grant of the fake news world.” As if to take himself down a few more pegs, he adds, “When they say, ‘The most trusted man,’ it’s like, yeah, the most trusted man from the 92nd Street Y down to around 84th Street, right around Temple Beth-El. Other than that, not so much.”

Self-deprecate all he wants, the fact is Stewart has become a bona fide icon in American culture, a beacon of sanity in a sea of early-millennium absurdity. That, in turn, is the dividend paid on Stewart’s investment in transforming “The Daily Show” into a thoughtful, and hilarious, reflection of its turbulent times.

And have no doubt it’s Stewart’s vision that sets the tone on every episode.

“I doubt anyone has his hand on the tiller quite as firmly as Jon does,” says co-exec producer Josh Lieb.

It wasn’t always thus. Comedy Central debuted “The Daily Show” in July 1996 with snarky former ESPN host Craig Kilborn in the anchor seat. Kilborn presided over what was largely an E!-worthy celebrity yukfest with little

buzz and even littler ratings.

Stewart took over on Jan. 11, 1999, and immediately began the process (with help from exec producer and former Onion editor Ben Karlin) of steering the show away from Tinseltown gossip fodder and toward Beltway bigwigs and the Media Who Love Them.

Still, he recalls, it would be nearly two years before the show really found its groove: “The 2000 recount was where we suddenly began to feel like we were connecting with everything we could do. That’s when I think we tapped into the emotional angle of the news for us and found our editorial footing.”

And Stewart found a calling. Bringing an acerbic wit, an eye for news and, when warranted, warmth and sincerity (witness his tearful opening monologue of Sept. 20, 2001, the show’s first post-9/11 airing) to bear, he consummated a perfect marriage of performer and platform.

Stewart speaks in a tone of pleasant surprise at the hand-in-glove match of his “peculiar abilities” and the show’s demands: “It’s like one of those universal exercise machines that they advertise late at night,” he muses: ” ‘You’ll use every muscle group, and it’s only going to take you 11 minutes! And you’ll look like John Basedow!’ ”

Still, he bridles at talk of his or the show’s importance. Asked how he and its writers balance keeping the funny and making an impact, he replies, “The way you do it is by not wanting to have an impact.”

He continues: “We’re really happy with the product, but we don’t get involved with ‘what it means.’ ”

The commemoration of a showbiz anniversary invariably inspires discussion of the future. Despite incessant suggestions to the contrary, Stewart is excited about having a new presidential administration to lampoon.

“People ask, ‘How will you do the show without George Bush?’ ” he says. “Yeah, how will we do the show with a sense of joy in our hearts? How will we go to work every day feeling like things might get better?” 

That’s not to say that Barack Obama won’t offer sufficient comedy fodder. “It’s like we’re getting a new Darren!” Stewart beams, then adds by way of assurance, “They’ll be plenty to goof on … his ears are quite large.”

And plenty of time to do it. Stewart’s current contract expires in 2010 and, barring any negotiating difficulties, he expects that he’ll reup.

But what of the long term? Although acutely aware of his vaunted place in the zeitgeist, he’s just as keyed in to how tenuous that status can be. “I’m convinced that I’ll leave the show two years after I become a parody of myself,” he claims.

“The jump-the-shark mentality exists now with shows that have been on the air for six weeks,” he observes. Ultimately, however, he theorizes, “It’s got to be an internal feeling and an internal decision more than, are they sick of you?”

For now, the reluctant national treasure remains effusively grateful. “I don’t think I’ll ever have this moment again,” he reflects. “It’s the nicest group of people I’ve ever been associated with,” referring to his “Daily Show” colleagues.

He waxes appreciative of “the atmosphere” and “the control” the job offers, then concludes, rising to a climax: “We get a catered lunch every day! I have a mini-fridge filled with bottled water! You’re not gonna find that everywhere.”