Jon Stewart's clowning elevated interviews

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Jon Stewart signs off as host of "The Daily Show" one last time on Thursday. (Kevin Fitzsimons/Courtesy of Comedy Central/TNS)

One of Jon Stewart's great assets as a TV interviewer is his ability to play dumb. That may seem counterintuitive for a guy who has gotten to talk to a sitting president on numerous occasions, not to mention various other political figures of note.

That doesn't mean he throws softballs or refuses to challenge those he interviews. To the contrary, he has avoided the former and is quite good at the latter.

When answers from interviewees became too high-minded, or too combative Stewart cuts in with the perfect quip about how he was lesser than the interviewee. He can be sparring with a partner, on equal footing - and then, with a quick jab directed at him rather than his subject, undercut himself. And it was always at exactly the right time.

Take his interview Tuesday with Tom Cruise, who was there to pimp out Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Granted, this isn't as complicated an assignment as, say, interviewing President Obama, to whom Stewart talked for the final time the week before, but it worked.

Stewart noted that Cruise takes his shirt off quite often for a 53-year-old man (he also noted that Cruise is older than he is). "I don't take off my shirt . . . even to shower," he said matter-of-factly. Stewart is the lowly comedian troll, Cruise the celebrity god. It's funny, it puts the guest at ease.

It makes Stewart a man of the people. He's not a celebrity. Or a politician. Or a famous scientist or author. He's one of us! We also don't take our shirts off!

This is a gag Stewart plays all the time, not just while interviewing, but that is the context wherein it works best. I'm just a comedian, I'm not a journalist was a refrain he threw out during his entire hosting tenure. It allowed him to punch up, to make fun of the big guys because he wasn't one of them. He was an outsider in both politics and media, so he could satirize it all. Everything is fair game, because everything is better than he is.

It was apparent even when he was making fun of Philadelphia. He would razz the city, knocking cheesesteaks, and then whisper, "I love these," and take a bite of a New York knock-off of our signature sandwich. Stewart would mock us, but he couldn't resist us.

In some ways, he was hiding behind that mantle of the clown, ignoring the incredible influence his commentary has had over his demographic-spanning audience.

Such self-deprecation can be seen as a cop-out. But Stewart, unlike some late-night talk-show hosts whose guests are limited to whomever has a movie/album/TV show coming out, has interviewed a broader selection of people, both celebs and non-celebs, both the media-wise and the media-clueless.

The tactic of self-belittlement is brilliant because it works for all sorts of people, for politico, celeb, and nerd alike. We expect the person asking the questions to have the upper hand - but Stewart makes sure every interview subject feels at least on par with him, if not better.

But, as he enters his final week, Stewart looks like he's finished. Take that Cruise segment. It tells us not only why Stewart was so good, but also why he's leaving. He looks bored. He wheels around in his seat. He takes his sweet time getting to the questions. He's just not into it.

This lack of enthusiasm reflects what Stewart told the Guardian in April. "It's not like I thought the show wasn't working anymore, or that I didn't know how to do it. It was more, 'Yup, it's working. But I'm not getting the same satisfaction,' " he said.

It's still funny when he makes fun of his refusal to go shirtless, but he's sick of the joke.


How Philly's 2000 GOP convention inspired Jon Stewart to get political

By Tirdad Derakhshan, Inquirer Staff Writer

I wonder how Jon Stewart is taking the swelling tide - a veritable tsunami - of praise in the run-up to his final appearance Thursday as host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

The comic is being lauded as a mix of Mark Twain, Edward R. Murrow, and John the Baptist, with his faux-news report lauded as the best work of satire in America.

Stewart's accomplishment is unique: When he took over hosting the show from Craig Kilborn in 1999, he had on his hands an established program that was droll, if unfocused.

In his 16 years at the helm, Stewart has transformed The Daily Show into a premiere source of political critique.

Though much of political comedy trades on cynicism, Stewart's intelligent, well-informed, and razor-sharp commentary manages to keep open a space for reasoned debate in an era dominated by partisan bickering.

The comedian's brand of irony exposes the hypocrisy of elected officials and the media alike. It angers, inflames - and inspires viewers to seek change.

Stewart began transforming the series when he seized the opportunity to cover the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and he stuck with the election as it became a dragged-out race to the White House involving recounts, hanging chads, and the state of the State of Florida.

Stewart, who has covered every election since, seemed strangely out of place amid the journos and politicos who crammed what was then the First Union Center that summer. It soon became clear his deer-in-the-headlights look was a come-on: It was part of a carefully developed persona, the naive schoolboy overwhelmed by the messy world around him. But this is a boy who can't stand people who lie.

Over the years, Stewart has learned that with just a little nudging, public figures will hang themselves if given enough rope.

"I have faith in my fellow Americans," John McCain said at the end of his speech at the convention, "and I am haunted by the vision of what will be." McCain's was a kind of ideological Freudian slip Stewart consistently manages to capture on his show.

"Indecision 2000," as The Daily Show called the circus, was a gift from heaven, and Stewart covered it from every angle.

The faux journalism Stewart has applied since breaks the golden rule of modern-day reporting. Stewart just tells us when someone's fiddling with the truth, especially when it comes to the grand statements both parties dish out so extravagantly during every election.

"Are we a nation that can make our dreams real for all Americans, so that all can share in what we have been given by a generous God?" Colin Powell asked in his 2000 convention speech, in a clip Stewart played.

Stewart gave a small shake of the head and said simply: "No, we can't."

But we must try. And that's one point Stewart has made in recent years. His critique, which spares no one regardless of political party, is done in the name of a populism he passionately supports.

His coverage of the 9/11 attacks and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dubbed "Mess O' Potamia" has been consistently on-point, and thoroughly patriotic. Stewart cares passionately about the fate of soldiers on and off the battlefield.

And in the process, Stewart has grown from critiquing to advocacy.

In 2010, he campaigned for legislation to support health care for 9/11 first responders. He presented the case on the show with his usual reserved irony: The GOP, which had made such hay out of the patriotism displayed on that day, were ready to do anything to stop the bill. In March, Stewart's criticism of the Veterans Administration helped bring about a new veterans' rights program.

Yet for all his accomplishments, Stewart has managed to remain remarkably human - and humane. He has resisted the temptation to become a celeb know-it-all. Unlike performers who think fame has given them a license to bloviate as experts in everything from cuisine, health care, and governance to rocketry, physics, and economics, Stewart still maintains he's just a comedian.


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736


meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909

@mollyeichel