"The Daily Show" on Comedy Central has become must-see television for news junkies and politicians alike. And now, he's kicked up some dust by going after what Correspondent Steve Kroft calls "the shouting matches that pass themselves off as cable news."
In a boilerplate campaign of prefabricated speeches and talking points, Stewart is never on message. And, as Kroft reports, when things get too serious, Stewart is America's favorite political commentator.
What is Stewart's most-savored moment of the campaign so far?
"Just every moment with Dick Cheney has been my favorite. Here's what I wonder about Dick Cheney, and the reason that maybe they keep him only in loyalty oath audiences, is if he becomes angry, I do believe he turns into the Hulk. And so, they try and keep people from questioning him, because he'll just -- the shirt rips, and suddenly he has hair," says Stewart.
"So he's been my favorite, because he just goes out there to a room full of supporters and says, 'You know we're all going to die, right?' You're going to die unless I'm in charge.'"
What about Kerry?
"Kerry is - I think if he really, really focuses, he can defeat Nixon and I think have our troops out of Vietnam by '74," says Stewart. "He is what Kennedy has wrought, John Kennedy, not Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy has wrought a whole other thing that has to do with not wearing pants and running around Palm Beach."
"(Kerry is) Kennedy if you squint," adds Stewart. "You know, if you're not really paying that close attention. Sort of profiles in courage, profiles in might have been courage, profiles - you know what I'm saying?"
Is Stewart sort of an equal opportunity skewer?
"We don't consider ourselves equal opportunity anythings, because that's not - you know, that's the beauty of fake journalism. We don't have to - we travel in fake ethics," says Stewart.
Four nights a week, Stewart presides over a comedy show that masquerades as journalism, deconstructing the day's events and the pretenses of television news by repackaging reality as a parade of the absurd.
This summer, Stewart unleashed his team of crack reporters at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry are all talented young comics, and students of the tactics and postures of television news.
Take this interview at the Republican Convention in New York with a delegate from Montana:
Samantha Bee (with delegate): Have you had your picture take with a black person yet?
Delegate: I haven't, but I wouldn't mind doing that.
Bee: That's something you'd be willing to try?
Delegate: Why, certainly.
Bee: There's plenty of them (in New York). Do you have any in Montana?
Delegate: We don't. In fact, I guess our kids were pretty old before they saw one.
Then, from the podium of Madison Square Garden, there was Lynne Cheney's
introduction of her husband, the vice president.
Lynne Cheney: While most of the boys I knew saw the charm of driving back and forth, time and again, between the two A&W root beer stands in our small town, Dick did not. And, when practically everybody in Casper, Wyoming started doing the twist, I can tell you, Dick did not.
Stewart: And when all those young men were forced to go to Vietnam.
Lynne Cheney: Dick did not.
And, while we're on the subject of candidates' spouses, there was this from Stewart, right after John Kerry's victory in the Arizona primary: "Kerry did seem uncharacteristically demonstrative after his win. Here he is giving one of his volunteers a big hug. ... embracing fellow Sen. Ted Kennedy, and, of course, giving his wife Teresa ... ahh ... an accidental running into.
With material like that, "The Daily Show" ratings are up 22 percent over last year. They even scored a journalistic coup when Sen. John Edwards chose "The Daily Show" to make a major announcement.
Edwards: I am on your show to announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States.
Stewart: I guess I should probably tell you now that we're a fake show. So, I want you to know that this may not count.
Kroft told Stewart he saw Edwards declaring his candidacy on his show. "Very effective move, I thought," says Stewart. "Oh, wait, he's not the nominee. Oh, yeah, no, it was bad, bad. Yeah. He did it, because he made a promise to us that he would, and he kept it. I mean, he doesn't understand this system at all."
"I personally had forgotten that he told me that, because I'm so not listening to the guests when they're talking, usually. I'm usually thinking about - you know - I would love a cappuccino," says Stewart. "So yeah, it was fun for us. But we have a difficult time when we march up to that line of respectability."
"You looked a little uncomfortable," says Kroft.
"Well, I think access doesn't work for us," says Stewart. "And by the way, it hasn't been working for the regular media, either."
Stewart expects to vote for Kerry, but says that's not an endorsement. But just about every significant political figure has come on the show hoping to reach his predominately young audience. The one notable exception: President Bush.
"I don't think he'll come on," says Stewart. "[He's] busy. Running the country."
Would he like to have him on? "The president? Probably not. It'd be very
uncomfortable," says Stewart. "We like to have him on - it's not even so much the drug dogs, because we're pretty good about hiding everything. What I would like to say to him, I feel like I wouldn't be able to. Because he's the president. And the respect that I have for the office, and for the person holding it, whoever it is, would be confining."
But there are few constraints when it comes to crafting the comedy sketches, and almost everything is fair game.
Does he do a thing on Iraq? "Yes, sure," says Stewart. "We call it Mess-o-potamia. It's the, I think, defining issue of the day."
Is there anything that he feels he can't do?
"I can't sing. Never been able to sing. I can't do voices very well. Every impression I do sounds the same," says Stewart. "I can't dunk. Man, would I give anything to dunk. Just once."
"Material," says Kroft. "I was talking about material."
"I try not to do the unfunny stuff. That's the stuff I try not to do. But, if you've seen the show, you see - it gets in. Oh, it gets in," says Stewart.
Stewart and his "Daily Show" staff have moved from fake news into fake history with America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. It's a twisted take on a high school civics book, with lessons on things like the five interesting moments in Senate history, and exercises like dressing the Supreme Court. That lesson got it banned from Wal-Mart.
Did he write it himself? "Here's the thing. I'm more of a delegator. I like to come in, have half a melon," says Stewart. "Sit down, go through the papers. Bring me the stuff, I'll edit."
"Do you get all the money, or do they get part of the money?" asks Kroft. "Well, they don't when you say the money. We work here on a barter system. So what they get are beads, which they can turn in for drinks. It's a lot like Club Med."
The book is currently No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. And Stewart's star continues to rise ever higher, with two Emmy awards this year, even the cover of Rolling Stone.
"We're certainly getting more attention, that's for sure," says Stewart.
The Television Critics Association gave "The Daily Show" its award for best news and information program this year.
"We'd always sworn, we're taking 60 Minutes down. You, Frontline, all you guys. You're meat. I think in some respects, they were punking you, as opposed to praising us," says Stewart.
And he did some punking himself after 60 Minutes Wednesday
admitted it could not authenticate documents used in a report on Mr. Bush's National Guard service: "CBS issued a statement defending its reporting but vowing to, quote, 'make every effort to resolve the contradictions and answer the unanswered questions about the documents,'" said Stewart. "Among those unanswered questions: Why the f*** didn't you check them before you broadcast it?"
"I can't believe that the National Guard memo scandal is the only scandal in four years that has gotten elevated to the status of having a gate attached to it," says Stewart. "Rather-gate. For God's sake, we launched a war based on forged documents. That doesn't get a gate. How do you not get a gate outta that?"
"Dick Cheney's old company does business with Iran, in an offshore Cayman Islands group," adds Stewart. "No gate. Nothing."
While Stewart makes his living doing fake news on Comedy Central which is owned by the same company that owns CBS News - he has real opinions about real news, especially the 24-hour cable variety, which he thinks produces more heat than light.
"You know, it is what has become rewarded in political discourse - the extremity of viewpoint, because people like the conflict," says Stewart. "Conflict, baby. It sells. Crossfire. Hardball. 'Shut up! You shut up!'"
So when Stewart was invited to appear on CNN's "Crossfire" earlier this month, he decided to withhold his humor, express those opinions, and provoke a little conflict of his own.
Stewart: You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
Tucker Carlson: You need to get a job at a journalism school.
Stewart: You need to go to one. The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk...
Carlson: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.
Stewart: No. No. I'm not going to be your monkey.
Some saw it as a sign that Stewart may be taking himself too seriously.
Others congratulated him for speaking his mind. In any event, when it comes to the media, no one can accuse him of playing favorites.
"Fox has the phrase, 'Fair and balanced.' And journalists wring their hands about that. How can they say fair and balanced, but they're not?" asks Stewart. "I watch it. It's not. It makes me so mad."
"Well, CNN says, 'You can depend on CNN.' Guess what? I watch CNN. No, you can't," adds Stewart. "I watch it all the time. So, your slogan's just as misleading as theirs."
"We don't have a slogan," says Kroft.
"You actually do," says Stewart. "May cause drowsiness."