Comedy news show has a serious side

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was mere minutes into his appearance on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” last week when he started to turn the discussion away from attack ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to some 21st-century concerns.

“George Bush doesn’t want to talk about the real issues,” Kerry said. “I mean, what’s he going to do, come out and say we lost 1.8 million jobs, 4 million Americans lost their health care, we’re going backwards on the environment, we’ve angered everybody in the world … .”

Stewart leaned in, jabbed a finger at Kerry and demanded, “Sir, I’m sorry. Were you or were you not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve?!”

The audience gave the moment a big laugh, something “The Daily Show” gets more than its fair share of.

But a serious point was made too, something “The Daily Show” does better than most other news chatter programs.

Kerry’s decision to make Stewart’s faux news show on Comedy Central his first TV appearance after the Swift Boaters began their campaign left some scratching their heads.

But for news junkies who’ve made the show part of their daily TV diets, it made perfect sense. While other news outlets get caught up in junk news, let “talking points” air unquestioned and generally fail to fulfill their watchdog role, Stewart has mastered the comedic art of skewering the absurdities of both sides of the aisle and is, in effect, asking, can we be serious?

Some traditional news people complain that “The Daily Show’s” popularity overshadows “serious” news. But Stewart’s audience is a politically savvy lot. They know that if Kerry had gone on a “serious” news show, he would have been hammered for most of the interview with penny ante questions about the Swifties’ blasts from the past, while Stewart actually turned to some real topics such as oil dependence and jokes such as Kerry’s ketchup connection.

For evidence that the traditional news media didn’t get it, you had to look no further than an Associated Press story about the show headlined, “Stewart Probes Kerry on Military Service,” penned by a writer who seemed to miss the satire in Stewart’s Cambodia question.

That all goes a long way toward explaining why “The Daily Show” drew higher ratings than the cable news channels during the Democratic National Convention, according to Entertainment Weekly magazine. It could repeat that feat during the Republican Convention this week. (Stewart followed his Kerry interview with Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie on Wednesday, needling him mercilessly about getting President Bush on the show during the convention).

But Kerry’s appearance was the ultimate get for the show, thus far.

Kerry’s visit not only highlighted Stewart’s ability to cut to the chase, but it reaffirmed his ability to take people with all the charisma of plywood and cajole them into easy exchanges. Even when Stewart is plucking the right or left wings off a guest, Stewart comes across as witty and amiable.

Stewart has shown with “The Daily Show” that a mix of truth and humor is much more pointed. And while the show could accurately be described as left-leaning, Stewart lampoons both parties. In a piece last week about the Kerry campaign attempting to find a multicultural street for one of his “front porch” appearances, Stewart said, “The stop took place on a street with a Hispanic family living next to a single mother next to a black couple next to a military veteran next to a laid-off worker. That porch, of course, is located on Demographic Street in Fakeytown. I believe I knew a street like that. I believe it was called Sesame Street. ”

It was a joke that registered with kids raised on the landmark PBS children’s show, and that is another part of Stewart’s appeal: The 41-year-old registers with a crowd that sees no peer in the gallery of established news commentators on networks and cable news channels. It’s also a generation that grew up on things such as “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” and HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News,” and thought there was often more truth in those broadcasts than the 6 o’clock news.

To that audience, “The Daily Show” is seriously funny.