In a May 2012 study that likely surprised no one under 50, researchers at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University found that television viewers who watched only Fox News Channel were the least informed news consumers in the country — faring much worse than respondents who watched no news at all. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, a late-night comedy series whose viewers have been denigrated by Fox's Bill O'Reilly as "stoned slackers" and "dopey kids," enjoyed the third-best-informed ranking in the study, behind only NPR and the Sunday-morning talk-show fans.
It was nice to have our suspicions verified with scientific data. The Daily Show's viewers are some of the most knowledgeable media consumers in America because, like the best sociopolitical satirists, Jon Stewart and his team of writers offer comedy laced with truth, cutting through the mainstream media's dense thickets of partisan bullshit and finding nuggets of clarity in a morass of talking points. The show's deconstruction of the real meaning behind Clint Eastwood's schizophrenic hallucination at the Republican National Convention — that the Republicans are attacking an Obama that "only they can see" — deserved an Emmy in itself (the show has won 16 of them so far).
In many cases, The Daily Show's comedy writers and producers do more actual reporting — usually in pursuit of political hypocrisy — than their lazier counterparts in the cable-news feedback loop. They find new angles in the same old stories or uncover new stories altogether. Yet the crew typically deflects praise for the journalism it commits in pursuit of laughs, saying it's just a comedy series.
"We're never thinking, 'We have a mission or we have a purpose, to inform people,'" says co-executive producer Adam Lowitt, one of three Daily Show staffers who will take the stage in a standup special this Saturday night at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts in an event billed as The Daily Show Live. "Jon's concern is putting out a great product and being really funny. I don't think his concern is, 'I want people to take my message and do something with it, or I want to be listened to in a political arena.' "
Launched in 1996, when Comedy Central was a largely uncharted blip on cable television, The Daily Show did not begin as a serious influence in the political world. Under Craig Kilborn's stewardship, the format more resembled a nightly "Weekend Update" routine paired with bizarre human-interest stories. That began to change when Stewart came aboard in 1999.
"Back in the day, if you look at these old shows, we were doing stories about someone who would make false teeth out of pebbles they would find in their driveway, and we'd go interview him and make him feel bad about himself," Lowitt says. "That is so far from what the show does now. Jon came in and started to pursue things he found much more interesting. He'd much rather see the harm in what's going on politically than someone who wants to drive across the country naked."
These days, The Daily Show is a major player. Its correspondents are invited to political conventions, it broadcasts live on election nights, and presidents make a point to appear on the show (well, the Democratic ones, anyway). The show's staff has nearly doubled since the early years, now with about 100 employees in writing, production, graphic design, on-air talent, field reporting, and research.
"We operate very much like a newspaper, where Jon is the editor in chief," Lowitt says. "We have people watching the news and reading blogs and reading newspapers. Jon is involved way more than people realize. He's involved in every step, every facet."
Standard protocol begins with a morning meeting to hash out ideas and shape the tone and content of the evening's show. Then the writers, graphic designers, producers, and field reporters scurry off into their cubbyholes, each working on his piece of the fluid and attractive broadcast that beams from TV land at 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday. The show is recorded at 6 p.m. each day; afterward, many of its stars moonlight at New York's comedy clubs.
Saturday's show in Coral Springs represents the convergence of these two worlds: standup and The Daily Show. The evening will begin with a video montage of Daily Show election coverage and a special taped introduction from Stewart. Then Lowitt will perform some of his material, focusing less on politics than dating, relationships, his anxieties, and his upbringing — "your evergreen Jew topics," as he calls them. He'll be followed by standup acts from cerebral Daily Show contributors John Hodgman and Al Madrigal, and a Q&A with the three performers will round out the night.
Perhaps somebody will ask the entertainers if they view themselves as simply, well, entertainers — or if they see a higher calling in their resurrection of a shiftless and moribund fourth estate. Lowitt will no doubt have an answer for them.
"People want to make [Jon] and the show into something more than it is, and people can do that," he says. "We don't have those conversations, like, 'I wonder if our show should be saying this, or what's the reaction going to be to that?' It's just like, 'This really makes us laugh. We really agree with this point. Let's just put it on TV and go home and eat dinner.' "