June 4, 2002







illustration by Derek Yu

Is Jon Stewart a journalist?
Do we care?

by Jared Saylor

Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has never claimed to be a hard news show. It uses the time-honored tradition of shows like Saturday Night Live and web sites like www.theonion.com to parody breaking news, offering an often humorous and intelligent take on national and international events. The Daily Show puts correspondents in front of bluescreens in its New York studios to make it appear as if they are broadcasting live from inside the White House or on the Pakistani border. One of its favorite targets is the news media, with particular ribbing reserved for broadcast and cable news.

But the events of September 11 forced The Daily Show to take a serious approach for at least the first few minutes of its not-so-serious broadcast. Stewart, the program's host, delivered a teary nine-minute monologue when the show returned to air on Sept. 20, nine days after the event. "In general," he said, "we feel like it is a privilege, we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that."

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Stewart spoke about the viewers of his show. "The disenfranchised center is upset that the extremes control the agenda in disproportionate ways because the extremes care more, they're more passionate," he said. "Whereas the disenfranchised center doesn't give a shit if gay people get married - it would neither stop them nor stand up for them."

The twenty- and thirty-something demographic of the show reacts well to Stewart's sardonic yet friendly wit. He acts like a close college roommate, the guy who would lend you his notes from chemistry class while offering a beer at the same time. Robin Worden, 20, a junior in college, started watching the show more after Stewart took the reins from the icy blond Craig Kilborn, who moved to CBS to host The Late Late Show in December 1998. "I never really got into the show when they had that other guy," she said. "But I really like Jon Stewart. He's smart, funny and kind of cute."

The show now averages about 700,000 viewers each night, almost twice the audience Kilborn had. A few years ago, Comedy Central satirized ABC News' slogan in its promos for "The Daily Show: "where more Americans get their news than probably should."

But even in self-parody, the cable network has discovered its own importance. In an advertisement in the April 10 Wall Street Journal, Comedy Central noted that "more 18-49 year olds get their news from The Daily Show than any other cable news program." Recognizing the absurdity of this development, the advertisement added, parenthetically, "Heaven help us all."

Viewers don't necessarily come to The Daily Show for news coverage. Brendan Maze, a 31-year-old warehouse manager in Fremont, CA said, "I don't watch the show for news, I watch it to laugh." Like many viewers, Maze watches CNN and local news with the same regularity as he watches The Daily Show. But unlike the news broadcasts, Comedy Central's approach offers Maze something he would not find in a news network: humor.

Cliff Gower, 29, a software engineer who sometimes puts in 15-hour workdays, always takes time out for the show's 11 p.m. broadcast. "We usually leave the TV on for the 10 o'clock news, but with the volume down real low," he said. "But at 11, work stops for a half hour to watch The Daily Show. I mean why not? It's better than having to work."

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