The headlines again...

Jon Stewart in London

Four nights a week on America’s Comedy Central channel, Jon Stewart satirically savages the White House and their policies on The Daily Show. So is he worried the powerful politicians he so mercilessly lampoons might seek their revenge? Hardly.

‘We’re using satire and puns,’ he says. ‘They have uranium-tipped bunker busters. My guess is they’re not too worried.’

The comment comes in answer to a question posed by the sell-out audience in London’s 1,600-seater Prince Edward Theatre. He’s here for one day only with Daily Show cohorts Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum to perform a couple of shows, thus launching his bestseller America (The Book) this side of the Atlantic.

‘Tonight the role of Mary Poppins will be played by three Jews reading from a book,’ he says, in reference to the more conservative entertainment usually on offer here.

By way of introduction to his sharp liberal comedy, the audience is treated to a clip from his award-winning show, recently imported to the UK by More4, about the July 7 bombings. It’s typical Daily Show stuff, genuine news reports interspersed with Stewart’s incredulous reactions and sarcastic commentary, followed by a spoof report from Britain, a member of the ‘coalition of the bombable’.

The show is billed as America’s premier source of spoof news, a boast that, like so many of the programmes jokes, has proved uncannily accurate. A recent survey showed that more people in the 18- to 24-year-old age gap were watching The Daily Show to get their information than news networks like CNN.

It’s a claim Stewart treats with suspicion: ‘College students are the most information-savvy people on the planet. In the time they’ve flicked to us on the dial they’ll have absorbed more news by osmosis that they’ll get from us.’

For this show, he’s abandoned his sharp suits for a more casual jeans and chinos as he reads extracts from the book. As theatre, it’s flat and under-rehearsed, his sidekicks obviously more used to producing and writing for TV than performing on stage.

Stewart acknowledges the failings, emptily promising the matinee crowd: ‘The second show’s gonna rock.’ But despite the flaws in this presentation, the book does contain some comedy gems.

It covers the entire history of America and the rest of the world (the latter dismissed comprehensively in five brief pages); from the ‘democratic money shot’ that was the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the invasion of Iraq. No prizes for guessing his stance on that: ‘When you are going into war and Germany doesn’t want to go…’ he trails off despondently. ‘For god’s sake, they invaded Poland because they thought it was looking at them.’

They wittily skim over America’s 43 presidents, from the forgotten Warren G Harding - ‘a worthless piece of shit’- to George W Bush, who ‘overcame an incredible lack of obstacles to achieve his success’.

It’s not very theatrical, save for an episode when Stewart, finally free from the confines of his Daily Show desk, prowls maniacally around the stage as he rants passionately – a little too passionately – about the media’s obsession with vacuous trivia.

But the team do concede a free press is vital to a thriving democracy, even if it does mean little more than ‘the freedom to publish pictures of George Bush with a Hitler moustache on your lame blog’.

Woody Harrelson, who’s in town performing Tennessee Williams’s The Night Of The Iguana the rest of the week, joins the fun briefly, demonstrating the formula for generating TV-approved names for newsreaders, weather forecasters and token ethnic reporters should their own be deemed unsuitable. Ironic, really, given that Stewart’s pre-showbiz surname was Leibowitz (Stewart is the 42-year-old’s middle name).

Talking of which, Stewart has a typically wry reason for why so many Jews seem to go into comedy. ‘Next time the economy tanks and they ask us to leave, we want to be likeable.’

He comes into his own in the more fluid Q&A session, the incisively funny comments being given the lift of spontaneity.

‘In 2008, it will be Hilary Clinton against Jeb Bush,’ he predicts for his nation’s next election. ‘As you guys move away from monarchy, we move towards it.’

That said, he’s not the unpatriotic America-hater his Right-wing detractors would believe. ‘I believe that the vast majority of America are relatively reasonable people,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately, those people have shit to do. That’s why the country is run by the other 30 per cent of the people

‘Every now and then we get a bit funky, but we pull out of it. When the Japanese bomber Pearl Harbor, we interned them and dropped an atom bomb on them. Iraq got of lightly.’

Still, it’s easy to see why he riles American Neo-Cons. Right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly is currently painting Stewart as some Commie who wants to see the end of Christmas, based on a year-old sketch from the show.

Only this month, the ‘news’man sarcastically wished Stewart a Merry Christmas. ‘As a Jewish person, I accepted,’ he said. ‘And promised not to kill any more of his saviours.’

Not all the questions from the North American-dominated crowd produced quite such a pertinent response. One Canadian woman, for instance, was keen to grill him on the finer print of the US response to the Kyoto protocol, eliciting some blank stares. ‘Let me explain,’ Stewart eventually explains patiently. ‘We don’t make a lot of policy. A lot of decision are made at a level above Comedy Central.’

Perhaps things would be better if they were...

First appeared: December 11, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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