It's Jon Stewart's job to make fun of the news, even when there's nothing remotely funny about it.
Such was the case last week when Stewart and the cast of Comedy Central's The Daily Show came to work on Monday and were confronted with the breaking story of the deadliest shooting rampage in American history.
So what's a fake anchorman to do? Find something else to be funny about.
"I will do what I always do when faced with something that is that powerfully damaging to the emotional core," Stewart said at the top of Monday's show. "I will begin to repress it, and swallow it . . . so let's move on, as if the world was OK."
"The main thing is to overcome your own sense of gloom," Stewart said the next day from his Manhattan office. The New Jersey native brings his stand-up comedy act to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby for two shows Friday.
"Our saving grace is that we're not the news, so we have no obligation to be the news. Our job is comedy, though the foundation of a lot of what we do is not particularly lighthearted. And it's not that horrible situations cannot make for something satirical or absurd. It's just that in the middle of the immediacy of something like this, you're fighting your own nausea."
Even under those circumstances, Stewart, who has seen the political and cultural influence of The Daily Show skyrocket since he took over in 1999, managed to mount a frequently sidesplitting half-hour this week.
The cable host mocked Richard Gere's kissing antics in India with the help of correspondent Aasif Mandvi. He poked fun at the amorous ways of World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz, whose efforts to "steer his way into the bay of non-corrupt business practices would run afoul on the coral reef of good nookie." And he welcomed guests including Capt. Sig Hansen of the Discovery Channel's crab-fishing hit The Deadliest Catch and ex-White House chief of staff Andrew Card.
Why do guests like Card come on a show that hurls venomous barbs at the Bush administration five days a week and whose host supported John Kerry in the 2004 campaign? "I don't know," says Stewart, sounding genuinely puzzled. "My guess is that he has kids and they watch the show. That's how we get most people who we have no business talking to."
Stewart clearly relishes tangling with those whose views are antithetical to his own. But when asked whom he prefers talking to, Halle Berry or former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, he answers like a politician.
"I can tell you who smells better," says the comic, 44, who sees his role as akin to an editorial cartoonist. "Bolton's mustache is actually not a mustache. It's an air freshener. So he has a nice pine scent. But seriously, one smells like heaven and one smells like fear. You decide."
Though the sitting president is Stewart's most frequent comic target, the satirist says he won't miss Bush when he leaves office. "People used to say, 'When Clinton goes, what are you going to do without him?' I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever's going on.
"And besides that, I look forward to deconstructing someone else's game. At a certain point there's no more surprises. You know [the Bush administration is] going to come out and say the opposite of what most people believe reality to be as adamantly as they possibly can. . . . And I'm pretty much done with that. I'm ready to move on to another form of deception."
Stewart was born Jon Stuart Leibowitz and grew up in Lawrence, N.J., near Trenton. He's a Mets fan - please, hold that against him. And he remembers going to an Eagles-Giants game at Veterans Stadium as a teenager and having his cap stolen by a group of 45-year-old men. "It lasted, maybe, 11 seconds," he says. "It was a beautiful experience."
After graduating from the College of William & Mary (where he played varsity soccer), he worked as a puppeteer and a busboy, as well as tending bar at City Gardens, the Trenton rock club, where he saw such "tremendous" acts as Gwar, Agnostic Front, and Philadelphia's Dead Milkmen. "The Butthole Surfers almost lit the place on fire," he fondly recalls.
A Woody Allen and Steve Martin fan, he didn't have any clear models for his career. "There was something about stand-up that made sense to me, but in a sort of weird 'Close Encounters Richard Dreyfuss building a Devil's Tower of mashed potatoes but not knowing why' way," he says. "But I sucked at it, so I wanted to get to the point where I was comfortable doing it and I thought I was good."
And how long would that take?
"What time is it right now?"
Stewart, who lives in New York with his two young children and wife, Tracey - whom he proposed to using a crossword puzzle he designed with the help of the New York Times' Will Shortz - still considers himself a comic first.
As someone who works close to the edge, what does he make of the fall of Don Imus?
"I think the most interesting thing about Imus," Stewart says, "is that when he said it, nobody realized what he had said. They have a seven-second delay on that show. Seven seconds went by without anyone saying: 'Hey, what the [hell] was that?' So chances are it was something that was native to the environment. It's like you're walking around in New Jersey and you see a sloth, and you think: That doesn't seem like it belongs here."
The success of The Daily Show has meant that many correspondents have moved on. Despite the departures of the likes of Steve Carell and Ed Helms, both of whom star in the NBC comedy The Office, the show has kept rolling with funnymen like British comic John Oliver. "There are times when I feel like the guy in Monty Python who gets one arm cut off, and then another, and then a leg," says the host. "But I'm still lying on the ground going: 'I'll bite you!' "
Stephen Colbert's departure in 2005 for The Colbert Report, which follows The Daily Show at 11:30 p.m., gives his own program balance, Stewart says. "Thankfully, we're made of the same genetic material. And it makes us a stronger parody, with us being more of the staid mother ship."
Stewart sounds almost envious when discussing the fabled cojones of Colbert, who mocked the president at a White House correspondents dinner last year. "Part of the joy of being in character is being able to get away with things others cannot. Though a lot of that is that [Colbert] is so high on Nyquil you never know what he's going to do."
The Daily Show host, though, has no complaints about his own job. "The best part is that I'm able to come in, and whenever I want, choose an intern . . . oh, wait - Is this being recorded?" he deadpans. "No, the coolest part is the ability to have a silly thought about whatever is going on in your world at 10 o'clock in the morning, and be able to see it go out on the airwaves at 11 o'clock that night. That's an amazing privilege."