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America's Anchors

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert faked it until they made it. Now they may truly be the most trusted names in news.

November 16, 2006 12:00 AM ET
Jon Stewart Stephen Colbert
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Robert Trachtenberg

I thought Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might be a little nervous to meet with me. I was the real news commentator, after all, and they were the mock. They threw spitballs at presidents; I interviewed presidents before throwing spitballs at them. I had crisscrossed the globe to cover news stories, while these guys just put on dark suits and threw up imported backgrounds on a green screen. No doubt they would try to impress me with some weighty discussion about world affairs or the midterm elections. But when I walked into Colbert's office at The Colbert Report, just off Tenth Avenue in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, the two barely acknowledged me. Stewart, rumpled in a gray tee over a long-sleeved shirt, khaki cargo pants, black Timberland boots and a Mets cap, was sprawled in a chair with takeout coffee. Colbert, neat in a long-sleeved navy shirt, blue pants and wire-rimmed glasses, was sitting up straight next to him, holding a paper plate of fruit. They were already deep in a weighty discussion.

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Colbert: If honeydew is ripe, I think it's the king of melons.

Stewart: Nah, I think given the choice of melons…

Colbert: You'd go cantaloupe.

Stewart: Oh, I don't think there's any question. The cantaloupe is far superior to the honeydew.

Colbert: No, every night I hunt for the honeydew.

Stewart: The honeydew is almost a coconut; it's barely even a melon. I think you're making a huge mistake.

Colbert: No, I don't care for it.

Stewart [in a stentorian announcer's voice]: Colbert and Stewart came to blows over the melon.

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At last, they turn their attention to me. Their gazes are not, as I'd expected, full of respect. They regard with amused disdain the old-fashioned, phone-book-size Radio Shack tape recorder I'd put on the floor between them.

"I had one like that in 1973," Colbert notes.

"I thought it was a chaise," Stewart says. "I was going to lie down on it. I suppose there are two gerbils in there slowly paddling, and that's moving the wheel." He asks if I also brought a calligrapher.

Other couples may disappoint. Jen and Vince. Paris and Nicole. Cheney and Rummy. But Stewart and Colbert have soared to hilarious new heights puncturing the Bush administration's faux reality, with Stewart as the droll anchor and Colbert as the puffed-up Bill O'Reilly-style bloviator. While real network news withers, Stewart's show has become the hot destination for anyone who wants to sell books or seem hip, from presidential candidates to military dictators. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf arrived at the Daily Show studio with bomb-sniffing dogs and a bulletproof facade for the anchor desk. For a Strong Man, Stewart said, he was "good people." At the Emmys, Colbert greeted the Hollywood audience as "godless Sodomites," and at the White House Correspondents Dinner, he proclaimed, standing beside the president, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." He hawks his own Formula 401 sperm on his show – "the more Stephen Colberts in the world, the better," he assured me – including a Spanish version, "para chicas"; wants Congress to build a wall and moat with flames, fireproof crocodiles, predator drones and machine-gun nests to keep out immigrants; and has a running "Dead to Me" list that includes New York intellectuals, the cast of Friends and bow-tie pasta. "I'm not a fan of facts," he boasts. "Facts can change all the time, but my opinion will never change." Truthiness, a word he made up just before going on air, has been hailed by New York magazine as "the summarizing concept of our age."

"Just understand," Colbert sometimes warns guests before the show, "I'm going to be a jerk out there."

They're the Cronkite and Murrow for an ironic millennium – STEWART/COLBERT '08 T-shirts are popping up all over the place. "Nothing says 'I'm ashamed of you, my government' more than 'Stewart/Colbert '08,'" Stewart told New Yorker editor David Remnick at the magazine's fall cultural festival. When Colbert traveled recently to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to be the grand marshal at the school's homecoming parade, he noticed COLBERT/OBAMA '08 T-shirts throughout the crowd. ("I can't tell Jon I'm dropping him to go with Barack," Colbert tells me later. "Maybe he'll read it in this article.")

Ben Karlin, Stewart's thirty-five-year-old production partner who oversees both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, says that "the biggest mistake people make is thinking that Jon and Stephen sit down before every show and say, 'OK, how are we going to change the world?' or any bullshit like that. They both really just want to get a laugh." Though the shows clearly have a liberal bent, Stewart claims that they are emotional but apolitical. He does not, however, hide his disdain for the media. At a New York Times lunch, when Stewart was asked how his show did such a good job digging up clips catching the president and other officials contradicting themselves, the comedian shot back, "A clerk and a video machine." A recent Indiana University study found that The Daily Show was just as substantive as network television news during the 2004 election. I'm not surprised that young people who watch it are well-informed. I read about ten newspapers a day and three newsmagazines a week, and I have my TV tuned to cable news all day, and I still find myself taking notes from The Daily Show.

Colbert, 42, is a meticulous sprite, a grown-up altar boy who still spouts Latin. "He's new to being the Man," Karlin says. "He's in that first blush of fame that's thrilling. Jon is over it." Colbert somehow grew up an optimist, even though, as the youngest of eleven children in an Irish-Catholic family from Charleston, South Carolina, he lost his father (a doctor) and his two oldest brothers in a plane crash on September 11th, 1974, when he was ten, and his hearing in his right ear from a childhood tumor. "His humor is an accumulation of the eccentricities, mannerisms and jokes of his ten older brothers and sisters, a medley that trickled down," says one Colbert staffer. He trained in serious acting and Second City improv and says his politics are a mix of liberal and conservative.

"Stephen is a happy man," Karlin says. "He goes home to a lovely wife in New Jersey with a new dog and three beautiful children. He teaches Sunday school and knows his way around the kitchen. And then he has this deviously brilliant comedic mind."

Stewart, 43, is an intense Manhattan smarty-pants who has the style and air of a man perpetually slouching toward adulthood. He's contentedly married with two small kids, but he still casts himself as repressed and anti-social, Stewart, whose parents went through a difficult divorce when he was ten, grew up in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, where he said he was bullied as a rare Jewish kid in his neighborhood. "Jon is driven by the forces of guilt and shame and fear of being on the outside that gives Jews their comic angst," Karlin says. "He's self-trained in stand-up. He learned in the wretched comedy clubs of New York."

The two satirists, interviewed together and separately, are so in sync they sometimes say the same word at the same time, play off each other's pauses or slip in a deft punch line for the other. Stewart cracks up at every riff Colbert does. Colbert, his writers say, still has a bit of hero worship for Stewart, and, as a longtime little brother in his own big family, naturally falls into that role with Stewart.

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the Odd Couple do not socialize outside the office. "In theory, I think Jon would be excellent company," Colbert says. "I just have nothing to back it up."

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