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‘The Daily Show’ is Adult Edutainment

Forget Chappelle, Jon Stewart is Comedy Central’s Clown Prince

By Philip Burrowes

staff writer

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Written by David Javerbaum

Directed by Chuck O’Neil

Craig Kilborn may have left “The Late Show,” but his equivalent on “The Daily Show” will likely stay where he is for quite a while. With Jon Stewart in the anchor chair, Comedy Central has ridden the wave of increasing late-night audiences to not only improve on Kilborn’s ratings but actually trump the “real” news which it purports to parody. Although this has reaped a decent harvest of sour grapes amongst television journalists from Ted Koppel to Bill O’Reilly, Daily Show viewers are significantly more politically informed than their peers, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey. Despite its two Emmys under the category of comedy and Stewart’s refrain that he is not competing with either broadcast or 24-hour news -- although he did quip that he’s glad Dan Rather has joined the ranks of “fake journalism” -- The Daily Show, unlike The Onion, is a sincere destination of choice for viewers seeking to stay current.

Like The Onion, however, The Daily Show is coming out with a book: “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.” Apparently too cheap to actually send it to college reviewers, Comedy Central instead sent tapes of its Republican National Convention coverage, for which it received record Nielsen audiences. In this way, they could promote the brand without giving away anything it could still make money from...You think they’d at least give us a self-destructing, DRM-riddled iTMS file of the audiobook, but no.

For those of you who have never seen the post-Five Questions Daily Show, there are a few format changes to be aware of. Stewart generally leads off a program with a mini-monologue then charges into headlines. This can go straight into the commercial break, or one of the four correspondents can come out for a bit. Leading the four is Stephen Colbert, who seems to have attained a Chris Bury-like co-anchor status. Ed Helms takes up Mo Rocca’s role as “the other guy with glasses,” while Samantha Bee is the token female and Rob Corddry is balding in a hilariously ungraceful way. Most notably missing is Steve Carrell, lured away by the bright lights of Tinseltown and shoddy Americanized Britcoms.

Both Carrell and Colbert are the only members who could pass for newsmen, but Colbert’s superior charisma more than makes up for the loss. Stewart readily admits he’s just a comedian, Lewis Black is quite openly doing a stand-up act in his weekly appearances, and the other three correspondents appear all too ready to snicker. Even given the most ridiculous lines, Colbert never cracks, always putting forth a disturbingly steely sincerity. Throughout the RNC, he was cast as the one true believer in the GOP, despite the liberal bent of everyone else telling him he should put his faith elsewhere. While heralding the apparent importance of crab cake festivals to the GOP platform, he deadpans, “It’s crab, Jon. Crab. In cake form. Does that mean anything to you?” complete with quasi-claw gestures. Although Stewart guffaws, Colbert smirks no more than usual.

This is not to say that Stewart’s personality is inappropriate for the show. The Daily Show crowd -- like that of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” -- adores the show far more than it deserves. Fans are just as likely to laugh at a vagina reference as they would to a satire of the government-led culture of fear. When Colbert is anchor, the show drifts too close to the presumptively unbiased broadcasts of all other news outlets. Stewart’s self-effacement is not just entertaining, but actually necessary to prevent the exploitation of an audience already leaning heavily to the left. He also works the crowd better; whether a joke crashes or kills, Colbert maintains the same meter, but Stewart is always ready with a quip for both outcomes.

You might imagine this makes him a good interviewer, but interviews are by far the program’s weakest segment. Lately, the show has been able to attain the big names like John Kerry and Bill Clinton, but in the end, Stewart throws softball questions just like his peers. When entertainers are on, it’s even worse, as they are essentially there promoting themselves rather than informing. At least with the Washington elite, their attempts at being funny have an awkward charm to them; Ted Koppel riffing on bikini wax, John McCain joking about Jell-O shots, Dan Bartlett admitting President Bush would have no business appearing on the show. In the final RNC-episode, Stewart vents frustration with Chris Matthews at the inability to call politicos on their preprogrammed responses. He feels all the more impotent that Matthews can’t do it, since Stewart believes -- as a mere comedian -- he certainly doesn’t have the pull to do so. Never mind that Stewart reaches a larger audience; his humility may be his charm, but it also undermines his potential influence.

Despite lacking either the seniority or personality of Stewart, Colbert, and Black, the other three correspondents turn in consistently funny field reports. Whether this is their doing, the labor of their editors, or a product of the writing staff is another question. Once, these reports felt like filler after writers ran out of news to mock, but for every human-disinterest piece, there are also topical, national features. The latter were in full force during the RNC, with Ed Helms and Samantha Bee masquerading as respectable journalists to uncover the cues the GOP use to sway the media, from free massages to coordinated cheering. It’s Rob Corddry, however, who takes the cake with a retrospective on the convention from the perspective of insurgents versus occupiers. He makes especially compelling use of “shaky-cam.”

If you live in a frat and aren’t getting Comedy Central, you might as well live in dorms. For those of you suckers on campus, every once in a while an episode shows up BitTorrent. Yes, if you can’t watch it then steal it; that’s the review they get for not sending us the book.