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TELEVISION REVIEW

Stewart primed in 'Look Baq'

May 26, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Deftly parodying a medium that regularly borders on self-parody is a formidable challenge, which hasn't prevented Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" from becoming a welcome alternative to the unintentionally amusing TV news that runs against it.

This late-night satiric newscast makes a foray into prime time tonight with "Iraq: A Look Baq (or, How We Learned to Stop Reporting and Love the War)," a breezy half-hour compilation of the show's better moments before, during and after the conflict.

That parenthetical reference to "Dr. Strangelove" is appropriate here, both in terms of a world seemingly turned upside down and a show that irreverently delights in skewering media foibles and eccentricities -- such as having one of its "correspondents" speak in halting bursts from the front before Stewart, in his role as anchor, points out that the report is via satellite, not videophone.

"The Daily Show" certainly picks off its share of easy targets -- including its own in-the-sand diagram of how Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera, reporting from Iraq, maneuvered his head into an unnatural location. Between "breaking news" reports where nothing much seems to be happening and over-caffeinated talking heads who maintain they are letting you decide, teeing off on TV news has become the comedic equivalent of belting a hanging curveball into the cheap seats.

Nevertheless, Stewart's program remains one of the few truly clever half-hours on television -- highlighted in this special by a staged debate juxtaposing actual footage of presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000 with the current president ("I wouldn't use force," the former states emphatically).

Though the Bush administration is on the receiving end of many such barbs, the show's ripest object of ridicule continues to be television itself, particularly local and cable news. The weeknight show has found its voice as a running commentary on the arrogance, flag-waving and time-filling speculation so prevalent across TV's news landscape, where even legitimate reporters -- forced to madly parse the color of "terror alerts" or jockey for the latest crumb about the Laci Peterson case -- are sometimes hard to take seriously.

Despite recently extending his contract through next year's presidential election, Stewart was and doubtless still is a frequently discussed candidate to someday assume a higher-profile role in late night, though he'd be well-advised to tread cautiously. "The Daily Show" provides more fertile terrain for his comic sensibilities than conventional talk, as well as such gifted satirists as regular contributors Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms flanking him.

Comparing to it unfavorably, meanwhile, is a companion "best of" show culled from "Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn," a round-table discussion of the day's events with "Saturday Night Live's" former "Weekend Update" anchor and a quartet of fellow comics.

Beyond Quinn's own grating comic limitations, "Tough Crowd" is one of those cable shows transparently designed to capture a youthful audience at the lowest possible cost per viewer -- a format destined to miss far more than it hits but which at least requires nothing more than training a camera on a cut-rate set and hoping someone comes up with something funny to say in a half-hour.

By the way, should you miss "Iraq: A Look Baq" -- or for that matter "Tough Crowd's Tough Cuts Vol. 1" -- Comedy Central will repeat each of them four times this week, just another thing that "The Daily Show" has in common with its often-recycled cable news brethren.

*

Comedy specials

What: "Iraq: A Look Baq," with host Jon Stewart, followed by "Tough Crowd's Tough Cuts Vol. 1," with host Colin Quinn

Where: Comedy Central

When: "Iraq" premieres at 10 tonight; "Tough Crowd" premieres at 10:30

Rating: The network has rated them TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children) and TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14), respectively.

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