Jon Stewart has never covered a war or uncovered a crooked pol. But that hasn't stopped him from tackling the really, really, really tough issues. Like the travails of a hero penguin in South Africa, or the need for nude weather forecasters in Moscow. Groundbreaking reports like these have given "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" the right to boast, at the start of each broadcast, that Comedy Central viewers are about to see "the most important television program... ever."
Anyone who doubts that claim should tune in as Stewart, 37, and his crew hit the campaign trail over the next few weeks with Comedy Central's "Indecision 2000" coverage. The big networks may be cutting back, but this news parody will send 94 staffers to Philadelphia for the GOP convention, ready to compete with "traditional" journalists. Then they'll aim for Los Angeles and the Democrats. And they'll have high-powered help: Bob Dole and former Labor secretary Robert Reich have both signed up to appear.
All of which proves that the line between real and surreal is getting a little fuzzy. "We're a fake news organization covering a fake news event," says Stewart. "We've hit the bottom of the barrel as far as irony is concerned." Maybe, but irony sells. Since Stewart took over as anchor last year, "The Daily Show" has averaged 2 million viewers a night, according to the network--huge for cable.
Those viewers include many of the real journalists the program is spoofing, some of whom have shown up on the show. After a segment with Wolf Blitzer, Stewart asked if the CNN star could stick around for a bit. "This is the most important show ever," Blitzer replied. "How could I say no?" Sreenath Sreenivasan, a journalism professor at Columbia University, has invited "Daily Show" correspondent Stephen Colbert to lecture, because he thinks the witty take on dumb conventions of broadcasting serves as a primer on what not to do. "It should be mandatory watching for anyone who produces journalism," says Sreenivasan. Consider one hilarious sendup 24 hours after the New Hampshire primary: correspondents Nancy Walls and Vance DeGeneres whooped it up with McCain backers while Mo Rocca shivered pointlessly outside in the cold.
Every night there's a mix of headlines, field pieces (a series on old people was titled "The Wrinkling of America") and off-the-wall commentary, like Lewis Black's priceless rants. What makes the show work, Stewart says, is those "spinach in the teeth" moments, when viewers glimpse the human being behind the image. One such moment occurred on John McCain's Straight Talk Express, the campaign bus famous for freewheeling exchanges with--reporters. McCain gamely submitted to a lightning round of questions from correspondent Steve Carell. Favorite book? "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Favorite movie? "Viva Zapata!" Then Carell popped in a tough one about pork-barrel politics. McCain was speechless until Carell defused the situation by admitting he was "just kidding."
Or was he? The gambit caught a savvy candidate off guard--no mean feat. "We're like that show on Fox, 'Magic Secrets Revealed'," says Stewart. "We're showing that they're on a Hollywood set." His guys don't have to play by the rules. Like when Rocca joined reporters who were holding up tape recorders to listen to Rep. Lindsey Graham. Except Rocca's tape recorder was playing music. When the others pointed this out, Rocca apologized: "Sorry, wrong button."
Although he loves a good joke, Stewart seems wistful when he talks about politics. Growing up in New Jersey, he was idealistic. "I was a Norman Thomas fan in a way that you can be in high school, because you don't pay taxes yet," he says. Even now, he seems slightly awed that he gets to chat with heavyweights like Dole, who came on board at the urging of his communications director, a fan of Stewart's. "We're a bunch of jackasses sitting in an office in New York who don't know how the government works," Stewart says. "He gives us insight." Plus some pretty good (and unscripted) lines. During one appearance, Stewart cracked that watching Al Gore was as boring as gazing at a Yule log. Snapped Dole: "When he gives a fireside chat, the fire goes out." Dole says humor can be a powerful weapon for a politician: "I wish I'd used more of it in '96." But seriously, folks, is this what it's all about? A good punch line? "We're just doing our job," says Stewart, "and we understand that [politicians] are just doing theirs, except their job happens to affect 260 million people and our job happens to affect my family and some guys I used to know in college who still watch." And that's as real as it gets.