Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" take it relatively easy tonight with "Indecision 2004: Midway to the Election Spectacular," a look back at the show's election coverage as the Republican Convention gets underway. It's a "clip show" -- that is, it's made of bits and pieces of earlier broadcasts -- a point that the writers do not let pass.
"Oh, come on, Jon, this is a clip show," correspondent Stephen Colbert responds snarkily to Stewart when chided for appearing in his sleepwear. "Pick up the line and phone it in. Brrring brrrring." Nevertheless, if you haven't yet seen the program that is considered perhaps the most important topical half-hour on television -- Bill Moyers has said, "You simply can't understand American politics in the new millennium without 'The Daily Show' " -- it's a good occasion to get acquainted.
Though it plays on Comedy Central, a basic cable channel where the show's neighbors are "South Park," "Chappelle's Show" and "Reno 911," "The Daily Show" has become an important enough venue that Democratic nominee John Kerry dropped in last week -- as had, earlier, most of his opponents in the primaries. John Edwards even used it to announce his candidacy. (Bill Clinton recently appeared, but he was on a book tour, after all.)
Despite a recent poll showing that around one-fifth of Americans 18 to 29 get their campaign news from "The Daily Show" or "Saturday Night Live," and notwithstanding an actual Peabody Award, Stewart takes great pains to minimize the show's importance, in part because he has a sense of proportion and also because it makes for good jokes. "We are not a news show, obviously," he said the night Kerry appeared. "Some people confuse us with a news show. And that either says something terrible about the state of news in this country or something terrible about the state of comedy on this program.... I prefer to think it both."
Politicians using such venues to humanize themselves and to reach audiences is not new; Clinton played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show, and MTV famously got into his underwear -- a foreshadowing of things to come. George W. Bush sat down with Oprah. On the "Daily Show," Kerry was received with encouraging whoops, but one may say that however the election turns out, he has no future in improvisational comedy. When Stewart asked him if he'd ever flip-flopped, Kerry might have responded, "I've worn flip-flops," or, "No, I haven't -- well, yes I have -- no, never," but all he could manage was an inchoate "I've flip-flopped, flap-flipped." His observation that "You'd be amazed the number of people who want to introduce themselves to you in the men's room," seemed like the One Wacky Thing he'd thought to use beforehand.
A master of the comically cocked eyebrow and stroked chin, Stewart is young enough to have cachet with his following but old enough -- he's 41 and graying -- to generate an air of authority; his team of "correspondents," a particularly savvy crew of players, catch the self-love and fake concern of the modern media hack.
Although their satire is essentially nonpartisan, one senses the communal sympathy lies somewhere left of center. (Stewart was doing his best to make Kerry look good, though the nominee did not always cooperate.) In any case, this not being a news show (even if it dresses like one), balance is not an issue, any more than it is for neocon Dennis Miller, who has set himself up on CNBC as the thinking man's Rush Limbaugh -- if such a thing may be imagined.
Tonight's compilation is -- paradoxically, given that it's a "best-of" -- not as good as an ordinary edition of the show, where the momentum builds across the half-hour and pieces run to their full length, but it's still pretty funny. It's divided into segments on Kerry ("The Long Road From Awkward to Uncomfortable"), Bush ("the challengee -- the challenged, if you will"), vice presidential contenders Edwards and Dick Cheney ("It's said the men who fill this office are just a heartbeat away ... from being important"), and the voters ("Who are they? Why do they bother?").
Included is the wonderful documentary rebuttal to Cheney's denial of having said it was "pretty well confirmed" that Mohammed Atta met with representatives of Iraqi intelligence: a film clip of him on "Meet the Press," declaring just that. This is the sort of thing that comedians nowadays do better than reporters -- "speaking truth to power," to use once more that fashionable phrase, has been their stock in trade since courts first had jesters -- the major media having apparently decided that uncritical repetition on one hand and belligerent punditry on the other are the way to go.