The Most Trusted Name in News

How Jon Stewart and 'The Daily Show' made the "fake news" a hit - and more relevant than the real thing

October 28, 2004
John Stewart on the cover of Rolling Stone issue #960.
John Stewart on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Michael O'Neill

On four mornings a week at 11:30 a.m., Jon Stewart meets in his office with his production team at The Daily Show, the Comedy Central news-parody program that emanates, Monday through Thursday nights, from a down-at-heels brick building on the far fringes of Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan. Stewart, a man whose face somehow blends the hangdog Jewish sadness of a Woody Allen with the blue-eyed handsomeness of a potential movie star, sits behind a cluttered desk heaped with books and newspapers. Onscreen, Stewart is the sober-suited, Windsor-knotted fake anchorman. Offscreen, he's all about casual: Today he's in a gray T-shirt, jeans and an NYPD baseball cap. He's also seriously fried, jet-lagged from a red-eye flight two days ago from the Emmys in L.A. (the show picked up two awards: for Best Variety Show and Best Writing) and from a mobbed two-hour signing last night for the show's best-selling spinoff book, America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy in Action. Plus, he hasn't had a proper night's sleep in eleven straight weeks, not since he and his wife, Tracey, a veterinary technician, had their first baby, Nathan, on July 3rd. Still, apart from the odd yawn, he looks surprisingly fresh as he rolls a football in his hands and talks with his top lieutenants about the day's show, which will go live to tape in less than six hours. After mulling over how to find an undecided voter for an upcoming bit ("Well," Stewart muses, "you'd have to go out and find a fucking idiot"), he turns to the "headline" item that will kick off tonight's broadcast: the speech that Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi gave to a joint session of Congress that morning. It has not escaped the notice of Stewart and his team that Allawi's speech had an oddly familiar ring to it. The comedic tone of The Daily Show is all deadpan irony, but the mood behind the scenes is one of intense youthful passion, and even fury. Right now the team's indignation stems from the transparent fact that Allawi's address was a thinly veiled gloss on Bush's stump speech. "That speech was written by the United States," cries Ben Karlin, the show's thirty-three-year-old executive producer. "Yeah," Stewart says, "Allawi literally said, 'It's morning in Iraq.'"

Jon Stewart Interviews Bruce Springsteen for Rolling Stone

"My favorite one was" – Karlin adopts a Texas twang – "'Iraq is safer, the United States is safer, the world is safer.'" They didn't even try to disguise the voice! And I guarantee you nobody is going to call that out!"

And no one does. The network news anchors, and the twenty-four-hour news channels – CNN, MSNBC, Fox – all fail to connect the dots on the telltale ghostwriting echoes, which, when you think about it, is a shame. Or a disgrace, given that this was the American public's first opportunity to hear Iraq's interim leader speak with the freedom we attacked his country to guarantee him. Instead, we got a rose-tinted campaign speech for Bush, clearly penned by the people who also put words in the president's mouth. For Stewart and the comedy activists at The Daily Show, this was too much. All morning the show's researchers trawled video of recent Bush speeches and located instances where the president used the precise words that Allawi did ("Iraq is safer," "The United States is safer"), and cut them into a rapid montage. At the 6:30 taping of the show, Stewart played the montage. Then, in a signature move, he shot a bemused look into the camera. "It's almost like the United States wrote the speech," he said, with puzzled disingenuousness. "But . . . that . . . couldn't be? . . . "

After the taping, in a small room off the studio, Stewart huddled with the team to postmortem the show, which Stewart feels was "a little flat." Some days, he later explains, the show seems to write itself, "then other days it's more of a comedylike polymer that we fashion out of Styrofoam. Styrofoam and rhythm."

Stewart's show has been extravagantly praised everywhere, including by Frank Rich in the New York Times, and it has won five Emmys and a Peabody Award. That the show has accomplished this in a post-9/11 environment where too sharp a departure from the party line can result in losing your job (Bill Maher) or spur a boycott (Dixie Chicks) has largely to do with Stewart's immensely likable personality – he somehow avoids off-putting snarkiness or self-congratulatory snideness – but there's another reason. The target of the show's scorn is not merely the mendacity, incompetence or corruption of our elected officials, but the media's refusal to call them out on it. The Daily Show is all about killing the media messenger – and for anyone who watches the twenty-four-hour news channels, with their unbroken stream of unmediated, unshaped news footage, "breaking news," yelling shows and the bottom-of-the-screen news ticker, it's richly satisfying to tune in at 11 P.M. and see Stewart and his fake news correspondents – Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Lewis Black and Bob Wiltfong – viciously satirizing the smugness, obliviousness and hypocrisy of the TV-news crowd.

Since taking over the show from Craig Kilborn in January 1999, Stewart has more than tripled its audience to more than a million viewers a night. But this only hints at his reach. A Pew Research Center survey last spring showed that twenty-one percent of people eighteen to twenty-nine years old get their regular campaign news from the comedians at The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (ABC News pulls just two percent more of that youth demographic). Much consternation has been expressed by the real media over this supposed dumbing down of young audiences. Indeed, Bill O'Reilly recently invited Stewart onto The O'Reilly Factor and ripped Stewart's "dopey show" for the power it confers on "stoned slackers" to swing the election to Kerry. But a new Annenberg Center study might startle O'Reilly. "Viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy," the survey of more than 19,000 adults concluded. Thus can Stewart now cite objective data to prove that he, like Walter Cronkite before him, deserves to be known as the most trusted name in TV news.

Not that Stewart would ever make such a grandiose claim for himself or his show. Or rather, he does, but with The Daily Show's patented irony. "I think we've changed the world dramatically," he says. "When we were picked up for broadcast by CNN International – I don't want to say a week later, but maybe two weeks later – the border between Pakistan and India stood down. Direct correlation? I don't know what else you can point to." In other words, forget trying to get Jon Stewart to display the kind of smug self-importance he ridicules in star TV news reporters. "We're a comedy show" is his constant mantra. "We consider ourselves scolds who are good with a pun. Skilled in the art of the premise punch line. We write the premise, we wait two seconds and then we deliver the punch line – usually something surprising, or ending with a vulgarity." Yes, like most comedians, Stewart is pretty much always kidding. Which doesn't, of course, mean that he is not dead serious.

Given his loathing of media clichés, it's not surprising that Stewart dislikes talking about his less than idyllic childhood. Let's just say that the early biographical data does not deviate sharply from that of every other person who ended up telling jokes for a living. Born forty-one years ago in New York, the only child of a physicist father and a mother who taught gifted children, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz was raised in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, the only Jewish kid in his middle-class suburb. He was relentlessly bullied. "They will find what is unique about you and destroy you for it," he says cheerfully. "So if you're Jewish and most people aren't, 'OK, let's go with that.' But it just as easily could have been because I was short." Then his parents divorced when he was ten. This hit him hard and has left him feeling, he says, "probably less than adequate." He does not speak about his father for publication. "We're not in touch," he says. "So I just think it would be unfair." He was raised by his mother, Marian, who, at seventy, is a successful education consultant and a woman whom he describes as having always been "passionate about education and current events." This rubbed off on Stewart. "I always had an interest in politics and public policy," he says, "and I've always had a disdain for politicians. I don't like theater. And that goes for theater theater, too."

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