Seriously Funny

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You could almost miss it. On a relatively out-of-the-way block at the edge of midtown Manhattan, plain blue awnings extend politely from the rust-colored brickwork that supports them.

No tourists mill around peeking into windows. (There really are none.) No blinking lights or animated billboards direct eyes to a marquee. No fanfare emanates from the location at all — just plain-blue canopies with white letters reading, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But within that discreet exterior lies a show that has been a lightening rod of political satire — one that catapulted its namesake and, by extension, Comedy Central, onto center stage during the 2004 presidential elections.

The Daily Show — and the team of writers and producers that surround Stewart — have transformed a program that was just getting warm in recent years into a red-hot cinder in 2004. The election, the war in Iraq and growing mistrust of traditional media have played right into Stewart’s hands as he and his merry band of satirists skewer the press, politicians and even everyday Americans doing dumb things. It’s all seasoned with a pinch of sarcasm that’s not quite matched by other late-night comedy shows.

The small audience filing into the studio is clearly primed for what some frustrated Americans consider a sort of cathartic experience. The crowd is giddy with excitement, as they’re treated to pounding rock music before a comedian emerges to warm them up. He beckons them to cheer. He gets them to laugh. A lot. And then he screams, “Are you ready to meet Jon Stewart?”

The crowd explodes as Stewart bolts out to the stage and banters with them for a few minutes. The stagehand counts down as he induces applause. By taping time, the audience is ready to laugh and, perhaps, to think a bit as well.

So, it seems, is the rest of America, based on the roughly 1.2 million people who tune in every night to Comedy Central’s hit show.

“They do something incredibly hilarious and hard-hitting,” says Ari Kelman, chairman of the history department at the University of Denver. “It’s blurring the distinction between news and entertainment, which explains Jon Stewart. And if you want your news to be entertaining, you might as well go to someone who is entertaining.”

Ben Karlin, The Daily Show’s executive producer, practically shrugs his shoulders as he discusses the show’s success from his spacious loft office above the show’s studio on West 54th Street. This night’s program, which just finished taping about 15 minutes ago, featured former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.

“It’s an entertainment show, but it’s also engaging with politicians in a substantive way,” he says. “Our show occupies this weird, unique space of being a little bit of news and information and mainly — hopefully — entertainment and comedy.”

With the blurring lines have come questions about The Daily Show’s role in the public debate. Is it a comedy show? Or is it a news program? When presidential candidate John Kerry chooses to appear on The Daily Show during the campaign, rather than on more traditional cable-news programs, does Stewart have a responsibility to suddenly be more journalistic?

According to the Pew Research Center, about 21% of people under 30 claimed to get almost as much 2004 election news from comedy outlets such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show as they do from newspapers and evening broadcast-news programs.

Karlin is skeptical. “I think that’s crazy talk,” he says. “We are a place that has information. Through osmosis, you’re bound to absorb some of it, but I don’t buy that we’re a prime source.”

Karlin acknowledges, however, that the show does walk a line of sorts. Of course, that’s also part of why people keep watching. “We try to balance it out,” he says. “We’re the type of show that’s going to have someone like Paul O’Neill on, and that’s the way we kind of make ourselves distinct. That’s kind of the voice of our show, or part of the voice of our show.”

It’s also part of the intrigue. After all, not many comedians choose to go on Cable News Network’s Crossfire or ABC’s Nightline to criticize the media for serving a steady diet of partisan bickering without much in the way of objective analysis. But Jon Stewart did just that in 2004.

“Jon Stewart’s outrage is genuine,” Kelman says. “I think his performance on Crossfire was very revealing.”

Karlin dismisses the Crossfire incident as a “unique moment” that had little to do with his show, but it’s hard to dispute that Stewart’s professed disappointment with media and political hackery feeds the very well of humor that drives The Daily Show’s success.

THE LOYAL OPPOSITION

To many, Stewart has become a sharp voice of dissent for those who beg to differ with the status quo — albeit, perhaps, a voice dulled just enough by wit to make it palatable for a larger audience.

As for the future, Karlin says the program plans to stay the course with its cast and direction. Although, he says, political humor is bound to decrease in 2005 without an election to feed it.

But Karlin wants to branch out in 2005, perhaps by doing a week-long series of shows at a college campus “focusing on issues that are relevant to college students.” Overall, Karlin says the show will let the news shape its humor, as it has in the past.

“We want to engage the subjects that people are thinking about, talking about — the things that people care about and that are relevant to their lives,” he says. “And if we can figure out a way to do that where it’s funny and smart and interesting, then I think the show will survive indefinitely.”

Or at least longer than those blue awnings out front.

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