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

John Stewart on the cover of Rolling Stone issue #960.
Michael O'Neill
John Stewart on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

Graduating from Virginia's College of William and Mary in 1984 with a degree in psychology, Stewart staged puppet shows for disabled kids, worked as a contract administrator at City University ("like working in cement") and tended bar. Though he'd always had a knack for generating jokes, which he calls "a brain dysfunction that you're trying to take to your advantage," it was not until 1986 that he finally moved to New York and made an assault on the comedy clubs, dropping his last name – allegedly because MCs mispronounced Leibowitz (in New York comedy clubs?) but actually, he has hinted, because of lingering paternal frictions. He soon became a fixture at places such as the Comedy Cellar. "I, like almost every other female in the comedy community, had a crush on him," says Janeane Garofalo, one of the other up-and-coming comics in the late Eighties stand-up boom. "He's just one of those guys everybody likes." Garofalo remembers Stewart as an incisive social critic, but he didn't "hit politics especially hard" in his act, she says. Back then his stuff hinged on what he calls "the holy trinity of comedy: sex, religion and death." When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, Stewart was less likely to attack the politicians and the media than to make wry, Seinfeldian observations about the three-day ground war. "They were afraid this was going to be another Vietnam," he told audiences, "and it turned out it wasn't even another Woodstock."

But it was perhaps precisely such polite, prime-time-friendly joking that landed Stewart his first huge break, in 1993: his own talk show on MTV, The Jon Stewart Show. A year later the showwas syndicated. But Stewart proved singularly ill-adapted to a standard talk-show format. He seemed in pain, shrinking ever deeper into the cushions of his armchair. There seemed to be no way to turn it around. "It was a talk show," he says. "Am I suddenly going to discover some unbelievably interesting way of talking to Maria Conchita Alonzo?" It took a year for the show to die – slow torture for Stewart. "That show was a watershed," Stewart says, "and I don't mean comedically. I mean emotionally. I was playing scared. I was playing not to lose." Stewart would remember this when he got The Daily Show. But first he had to negotiate four years in the comedy wilderness.

Well, not wilderness. He was ferociously busy, appearing on Letterman and Leno, doing clubs, writing for and performing on The Lorry Sanders Show, penning a book of comedic essays and appearing in a few forgettable movies: The Faculty, Playing by Heart, Big Daddy – a career, come to think of it, that most comics would die for. Except that Stewart had once been considered a potential heir to Letterman's throne. Instead, he'd watched Conan O'Brien get the nod for Dave's Late Night slot on NBC, and in December 1998, he saw Craig Kilborn beat him out for The Late Late Show on CBS. Stewart was now in his late thirties. To avoid the ignominy of the "What Ever Happened to . . ." segment on ET, something had to happen.

What did happen was that in January 1999, he took over The Daily Show anchor chair that Kilborn had vacated. The show, under Kilborn, had parodied the news but with an emphasis on celebrity mishaps and a frat-boy knowingness wholly out of step with Stewart's persona, interests, talents — and brains. Two minutes in Stewart's company shows you that he's scary smart, and not the faux smart so familiar from fast-talking celebrities who have learned a few snappy lines about current events. And that's not to say that Ben Affleck isn't a nice guy. But Stewart actually thinks about stuff. Serious stuff, and thinks about it critically and deeply. And that's what he decided The Daily Show platform offered him: a chance to say something that mattered, with Styrofoam and rhythm. Only problem was, he was inheriting an entire production team and writing staff schooled in the fine art of making jokes about supermodels. Asked how he managed to retarget the show's comeadic arserial, Stewart says, diplomatically, "It was — frustrating, but over time the people that were less enthused about the direction of the show left, and we hired other people who were maybe more inclined."

The most crucial new hire was Ben Karlin, a then twenty-eight-year-old former editor of the satirical fake newsweekly The Onion, who was lit up with angry passion and fiery idealism — plus, he was funny as hell. Like Stewart, he had zero interest in writing japes about Pee-wee Herman's mug shots. "The main thing, for me, is seeing hypocrisy," Karlin says. "People 'who know better saying things that you know they don't believe.'" Stewart recognized a kindred spirit and Karlin was hired as head writer. "Ben was huge," Stewart says. "That was, for me, the beginning of it starting to take shape. When you feel alone, all it takes is one other person to go, 'I think that's right.'"

Now equipped with an agenda of closely tracking the actual big news events of the day, The Daily Show truly began to hit its comic stride with the 2000 election, whose protracted chad-counting outcome provided endless fuel for Stewart and Karlin's satiric indignation. Their coverage of "Indecision 2000" ("Choose and Lose") won a Peabody Award, and ratings began to climb. The next milestone was the attacks of 9/11, in the aftermath of which Stewart wasn't sure he could make comedy. But he went back on the air nine days later and delivered a tearful nine-minute monologue that, today, he would as soon forget. "It was cathartic and selfish and whether people related to it or not wasn't even so much the issue as we needed — or I needed — to clear my own head," he says. Karlin admits that, as head writer, he was worried. "It seemed there was no possible way we could engage the story." But they did engage it, brilliantly, in part by focusing on the worst excesses of the real media. Parodying the TV news show's despicable habit of conferring a jazzy entertainment-style title on every event, The Daily Show called its post-9/11 coverage "America Freaks Out," and its parody ticker read "Oh God Oh God Oh God . . . "

But it was in the lead-up to the Iraq war, in the winter of 2003, when The Daily Show began to do what it does best: attack the media for failing to aggressively pursue the truth from politicians. Nothing gets up The Daily Show team's nose like the 'way the media gave the Bush administration a free ride as it prepared for war last year, lobbing puffball questions to Bush at carefully scripted press availabilities, and then parroting, with no critical analysis, obvious falsehoods. "If you asked, they'd say their job is just to report and it's not their place to put in opinion," says DJ Javerbaum, the show's current head writer. "But that's a cop-out, and deep down they know they've been bullied."

Stewart thinks much of the problem is sheer laziness. "If I worked in a twenty-four-hour newsroom, all I have to do is find a liberal and conservative and I've done my job," he says. "I can lazily go, 'This is the question. Donna Brazile, what do you think? Bay Buchanan, is she right? Thank you, that was a marvelous discussion.' That wasn't a discussion." Indeed, Stewart gives the conservative Fox News Channel credit for at least having a point of view. "Some of their [broadcast] is an honest reaction to what they believe is a political and social point of view that is underrepresented, and some of it is a political strategy to retain power for those people," he says. "But what CNN does is far more of a missed opportunity, because they're not driven by anything." So is Stewart's point that liberals need a twenty-four-hour channel to counter Fox? Hardly.

"People say, 'The left wing needs a new station!' No they don't. We need a news organization that puts country over partisanship – that doesn't define truth through that bi-chromatic prism that is right and left." He points to the inanity of the Crossfire-style argument shows. "The overwhelming majority of the country is far closer than what shows like Crossfire would have you believe. But in the world of commerce, extremity is rewarded. Ann Coulter is not rewarded for writing thought-provoking columns. She's rewarded for saying, 'Joseph McCarthy was good people.' So then Michelle Malkin goes, 'OK, I'll see Joseph McCarthy and raise you the internment of Japanese people as a positive step.' So then the left has to come out and say, "We fought Afghanistan to build a pipeline from Uzbekistan.'" Stewart's point is that in a fevered media environment where the spoils go to whoever can make the loudest, and most outrageous, argument, the loser is the American public – and a democracy whose health is dependent on being properly informed by its watchdog media.

"I think what has happened to the media is ambition and stardom have overwhelmed purpose," he goes on. "People always talk about how there's a liberal bias and a conservative bias. But the main bias of the news is personal ambition, because a lot of choices are made based on not burning this source or not causing a conflict in an area that is your ladder upward. In the same way that there's no such thing anymore as a news interview with a newsmaker, because the 'get' is so intense. When Barbara Walters got Monica Lewinsky, that wasn't going to be a newsmaking interview because she had to seduce Monica Lewinsky into the interview. You're not going to get anything controversial because: Why would Barbara do that to a friend? The media is utilized purely as a strategy by people in power."

Sounds good – except for one uncomfortable fact. As political operatives on both sides have recognized the importance of wooing The Daily Show's plum demographic, Stewart finds himself being held to a new standard in his own interviews. This was never more apparent than on the evening of August 24th, when he scored a major "get" – a one-on-one with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. In faceoffs with Republican strategists such as Ed Gillespie and Marc Racicot, Stewart has proved himself a polite, but tenacious, interviewer. (His genial carving-up of Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla was a classic that should be studied in journalism classes.) But with Kerry, Stewart seemed to fall prey to precisely what he attacks in the likes of Barbara Walters: soft-soaping a "get" toward whom he feels sympathetic. The encounter was often excruciating, with Kerry demonstrating all the charm of a cadaver, and Stewart overawed, nervous and eager to please. Sample exchange:

STEWART: Are you the number one most liberal senator in the Senate?

KERRY: No.

STEWART: OK.

Within hours of the broadcast, the cybersphere was filled with the wails of anguished bloggers lamenting the vanishing of Stewart's spine. The online magazine Slate sorrowfully ripped him for "pitching not just softballs but marshmallows." Stewart, who is nothing if not self-critical, has spent the weeks since then making funny and self-deprecating remarks, on-air, about how badly he blew it with Kerry. Off the air, he's less inclined to joke about the disaster. "I honestly think it was my discomfort at wanting to be funny," he says. "I think I could have been more forthright with him and still done the type of interview that I normally do." But isn't falling back on the I'm-just-a-comedian excuse an unfair out? "I think that's always an unfair out," he admits. "But ultimately I'm judged on whether or not the show is funny. If people get a certain insight from the comedy, that's wonderful, because we're trying to do jokes about things we care about and certainly our point of view is inherent in it. But the idea that somehow we fail when we don't live up to journalistic expectations is a misreading of "what it is we're doing."

Like I said, the dude is smart.

In mid-September, Stewart re-upped on his Daily Show contract (which reportedly pays him in the order of $2 million a year), and thus will be at the fake anchor desk through the election of 2008. This, I would argue, is encouraging news for the state of the republic, and it no doubt makes the suits at Comedy Central happy. Less pleased, I suspect, are folks like Bill O'Reilly and other conservatives who believe that Stewart and The Daily Show gang are little more than stealth operatives for the left. In reality, Stewart has always maintained an air of nonpartisanship, although, as Election Day nears, he's been delivering some particularly blunt attacks on Bush. "Sometimes," he says, "we decide to drop the irony and just say it."

Stewart is by no means convinced that the scorn he heaps, four nights a week, on the Bush administration will cost the president a single vote in November. Prior to a recent taping of the show, Stewart, while warming up the studio audience, asked if anyone had any questions. When a male audience member demanded to know if Stewart will continue to "bash" Bush if he wins the election, Stewart asked who they thought was the most "joked about" president in history. "No," he continued. "Not Van Buren. It was Clinton. And he left office with a seventy-five percent approval rating. The truth is, folks, that jokes in actuality defuse criticism of a politician rather than erode his support." He let this sink in for a moment. Then he said, in a whisper, "So maybe I'm punkin' you all."

This story is from the October 28th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 960: October 28, 2004
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