Jon Stewart: Red, White & Funny

Some people are allergic to milk. Some people are allergic to dust. Jon Stewart is allergic to liars, spinners and boasters, even pint-size ones from Ohio. "I heard Dennis Kucinich in the last Democratic debate say, 'When I'm president... ,' and I just wanted to stop him and say, 'Dude'." So it's a little surprising that Stewart is boasting a bit himself tonight. It's a windy, frigid evening in Manhattan, and about 100 brave souls--mostly guys in baseball caps and the women who love them--have assembled to watch Stewart host "The Daily Show." Stewart--gray suit, graying hair--is onstage pumping up the crowd just before taping. "We've got us a Democratic general!" he says, clearly elated about having Gen. Wesley Clark as his guest. "That's like a gay black Republican. It's a rare beast." The audience laughs. Then, suddenly, Stewart's anti-hype radar locks on another target--himself. "I can't believe the luck you all have," he says, "because some days you come here and you get the third lead from 'Angel'."

Dude, that is so not true. Sure, "Saturday Night Live" had Al Sharpton, and Jay Leno entertained John Kerry on a Harley, but "The Daily Show" has got everyone by the throat. The program won two Emmys this year--beating "Leno" and "Letterman"--and is becoming the coolest pit stop on television. And it does it the hard way. Unlike late-night talk shows that traffic in Hollywood interviews and stupid pet tricks, "The Daily Show" is a fearless social satire. Not many comedy shows would dare do five minutes on the intricacies of Medicare or a relentlessly cheeky piece on President George W. Bush's Thanksgiving trip to Iraq ("A small group of handpicked journalists accompanied the president on his top-secret mission to tell the entire world about his top-secrecy"). His cut-the-crap humor hits the target so consistently--you've gotta love a show that calls its segments on Iraq "Mess O'Potamia"--he's starting to be taken seriously as a political force. The Democratic National Committee announced this month that it plans to invite Stewart & Co. to cover its convention, amazing since "The Daily Show" is actually a fake news program. "This guy has great insight into life," says Clark. "A lot of people listen to him. He has tremendous influence." All that, and the guy's on cable. Basic cable.

But you know what's really funny about Stewart? The more seriously the world takes him, the more he makes off like he's the Dennis Kucinich of television--amusing, short and not that important. So what if John Edwards announced his presidential candidacy on the show? "No one took it seriously," says Stewart. "After he said, 'I'm announcing that I'm running for president,' I said, 'I have to warn you we are a fake show, so you might have to do this again somewhere'." What about studies that claim young people get a huge portion of their news from late-night comedy? "I just don't think it's possible," he says. "We're on Channel 45--in New York! Literally on the remote-control journey you could absorb more news than you would get from our show." So that's it, then. All you politicians lining up for face time with Stewart are wasting your breath. "Our politics are fueled by the comedy. We're not a power base in any way. Our show is so reactionary, it's hard to imagine us stimulating the debate," Stewart says. "Maybe I shouldn't be saying this. I'm literally saying, 'Why are you in my office talking to me? I'm nobody'."

Which is not to say that Stewart, 41, doesn't take his work as seriously as any non-fake news anchor. Tucked between the gumball machine, the George Foreman grill and the doggie kennel in his dormlike office you'll find books by Henry Kissinger and stray issues of The Economist. "There are certain magazines I read that are more helpful than others," he says. "Anything with a jumble. That's a nice distraction." As you can probably tell by now, part of the Stewart shtik is to play the wisecracking everyman--kind of like if Will Rogers were from New Jersey--and it's genius. Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly can only dream of pounding the wind out of a political blowhard as quickly as Stewart can with a quip and an eye-roll. For instance, one night he shows a tape of Clark bragging at a Democratic debate: "I worked it for Haiti, I worked it for Bosnia and I worked it for Kosovo." Cut to Stewart: "Please tell me those are the names of places and not Japanese businessmen." Clark, by the way, appeared in person on "The Daily Show" the very next day, and was thrilled to be there. Most politicians are. "Oftentimes, people who say satiric or unpleasant things are labeled as curmudgeons," says "Daily Show" co-executive producer Ben Karlin. "Jon has a very rare gift for being able to deliver material that has bite, but not in a mean or nasty way."

He's obviously not the only Mr. Congeniality on TV. You can't throw a remote control without hitting a politician on late- night these days. Ever since Bill Clinton played the saxophone on "Arsenio Hall" back in 1992, campaigners have flocked to comedy shows to present a hipper, gentler side. "America wants to see these guys poking fun at themselves," says Rob Burnett, executive producer of "Late Show." "An appearance with Dave can do a lot more for them than on 'Meet the Press'." He means demographically. The median age of "The Daily Show" audience is 33--Leno's and Letterman's are in the 40s--and those are crucial, difficult voters to reach. College kids in particular think Stewart is a god. "He's one of the few 'adults' that mocks the things we mock, and he can do that without talking down to us," says Katherine Bullen, a University of Iowa sophomore.

Late-night comedy can still be risky for the Beltway crowd. "The Daily Show" has much more difficulty attracting Republicans than Democrats. "Because they're winning," says Stewart. "And because they've learned how to manage the message in a much more effective way." And because comedy doesn't always sit well on guys who wear suits for a living. President Bush came off as horribly wooden the first time he did "Letterman." The second time, cameras caught him wiping his glasses on an executive producer's frock. Kerry's motorcycle stunt on "The Tonight Show" didn't do much for him, either. "I thought of Dukakis and the tank," says Bob Dole, whose dry, quick wit has made him one of late-night's favorite political guests. "If you're going to go on those shows, you'd better be funny. After I lost in '96, I went on 'Letterman,' and we got hundreds of letters saying, 'If you'd have done that before the election, I'd have voted for you'."

But by and large, the late-night shows try to make politicians look good. Leno, Letterman and even Stewart go easier on the campaigners than Tim Russert does. To their credit, politicians are usually happy to play along. They certainly don't issue the same kinds of demands--you can't ask about my DWI arrest!--that your average Hollywood starlet does. Though Al Gore did once request that Leno not discuss a notoriously, shall we say, erect Rolling Stone cover, Leno got him to talk about it anyway.

"The Daily Show" wasn't particularly topical when Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn in 1999. But Stewart, who started as a stand-up comic named Jon Leibowitz ("First I changed it from Leibowitz to Feinberg, but that struck me as the same"), wanted a more "real" news program. The turning point came when Steve Carell, one of the show's deliciously deadpan correspondents, talked his way onto John McCain's campaign bus and asked a series of inane questions with such faux-network gravitas, McCain didn't know if he was joking or serious. "I think Stewart's probably a liberal, but so what?" says Dole, who did commentary for the show's Bush-Gore coverage, aptly called "Indecision 2000." "You don't care who they're shooting at as long as it's funny, and he's a fun guy." But not just fun. The show won a Peabody Award for its 2000 campaign reporting, in large part because beneath the jokes, "The Daily Show" really does approach something like intelligent analysis. "I think the people who work here truly care," says Stewart, who works with about a dozen staff writers. "Certainly we don't tie-dye much in the building, but we're optimistic. This is a show grounded in passion, not cynicism."

Any second-rate comic can mock hanging chad, the Supreme Court and a nail-biting election--even Bill Maher seemed funny back in 2000. But what will "The Daily Show" do with a presidential contest that, post-Saddam, looks pretty dull? "I think this one we'd prefer to call 'No Decision 2004'," says Stewart, though they won't. Stewart says the show will cover the Democratic primaries, including going live from New Hampshire. They'd like to organize a third-party debate--is Gary Coleman still available?--both to liven things up and because "The Daily Show" is something of a TV version of a third party: outsiders screaming to be heard. But they insist that a lopsided campaign isn't bad for the funny business. Besides, it's still early. "In the 2000 election, Darrell Hammond did Gore in April to no response," says "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels. "People weren't paying attention. In the fall, once the debates happened, the effect was electrifying."

If all else fails, "The Daily Show" can always pick on its second favorite target: the media. For all the talk about the show's political bite, it's downright vicious to reporters. From the "senior correspondents" who never really leave the studio, to interviewers who are too impressed with their questions to wait for an answer, it's kind of amazing that the show has become a media darling. And it never misses a real news faux pas. A segment last week that showed an MSNBC reporter climbing into a plywood box made to imitate Saddam Hussein's bunker--"So Saddam apparently got his spider hole from IKEA?" said Stewart--was beyond hilarious. "I'm actually far more interested in the media's responsibility than the politicians'," says Stewart. "To me, the most interesting shot in the documentary 'Journeys With George' is from behind the horde of reporters going to a staged event. You ever see 8-year-olds play soccer? It's just this weird clump of legs, and then all of a sudden the ball will fly out and with no strategy or game, they just go 'Ball!' That's what the media is."

So how long will it be before Stewart picks up his ball and leaves? He's twice missed getting a late-night chair on a network--and yet you're not seeing Jimmy Kimmel on the cover of NEWSWEEK. Stewart's contract with Comedy Central runs through December 2004, and with his acting gigs ("Death to Smoochy") and some dabbling on a sitcom pilot, the conventional wisdom is that Stewart's days in the cable wilderness are numbered. But if there's anything Stewart hates, it's the conventional wisdom. "The work isn't diminished by the channel you're on. It doesn't feel chintzier," says Stewart, who reportedly makes an unchintzy $2 million a year. The fact is, he's very happy. He's kicked his insomnia and his hypochondria. "I didn't realize it at the time, but after you cut out smoking, drinking and drugs, you feel much better," he says. He's been married for four years to Tracey, a veterinary technician. "I am a neutered cat," he says. "It's a very contented and warm feeling." Would he actually stick around "The Daily Show" for the 2008 election? "Yeah," he says. "Absolutely." Hillary Clinton, consider yourself warned.