A note to readers: I’m switching from doing daily reviews of this show to a weekly review, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the week’s episodes.
Often the weakest parts of television shows hosted by comedians are the interview segments. Many talk show hosts clearly don’t even bother reading the book of the author they are interviewing. Not Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. He does his homework and it shows. While he has been accused of throwing a few softballs at liberal politicians, he generally asks some good thoughtful questions. It used to be that his guests were clearly surprised he even read the books, let alone had smart questions to ask about them. Now it seems to be at the point where the guests assume he is familiar with the books – which he clearly is – and are ready for him to ask good questions, as opposed to having scripted questions and answers like on some shows.
This week, some of his interviews were among the best parts of the show. The interviews let Stewart’s intelligence and quick wit show clearly.
The first 10 minutes
Usually the first 10 minutes are the strongest part of this show. It is during this time that Stewart riffs on a few news items, often providing amusing footage or wordplay to story. He then goes to a correspondent who does their own piece. This week, though, the first 10 minutes were underwhelming. Some of his jokes just fell flat. Look, for example, at his take on the news announced last week about the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Lee Raymond. Not only did Raymond get $140 million in 2005 as compensation (including cash, stock, options and a pension plan), but Raymond is now entitled to stock, options, and long-term compensation worth at least another $258 million. This is disturbing on many levels: The height of greed, the rich getting richer, etc.
So what does Stewart do with this — well — rich material? He makes fun of Raymond’s jowls. “Some would say his face is the embodiment of greed run amok. Although it does have its admirers — I suggest you check out jowlbangers.com,” Stewart said. The jowls are needed for storage, Stewart explained: He keeps a Honus Wagner baseball card and other stuff in his jowls. “Good luck on your retirement, Mr. Raymond. Here is hoping you get to spend some quality time with your jowls,” Stewart said. There was some crowd laughter but that is because he reached for the easy sexual joke. I wanted to see Stewart stick it to this man and instead he makes fun of his jowls? Come on, Stewart can do better than that.
Even correspondent Ed Helms, usually pretty funny, was disappointing. He did a report on Homer, Alaska where there is a movement to reduce the number of eagles there. I think the bit’s intent was to mock the conservative cries about America’s cultural artifact under attack like the bogus allegation that Christmas was under attack. Now, my god, the eagle, a symbol of the United States, is under attack. How terrible! Shocking! And…not that interesting, really. But it was not funny so much as weird and sad as we met some people with seemingly nothing better to do with their life than worry about the number of eagles in town.
I was curious to see what Stewart would do with the news that White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was resigning. But again I was underwhelmed. The funniest part came when Stewart interviewed Helms, who was billed as the Senior White House Correspondent. Stewart asked Helms if McClellan quit or was forced out. Helms said he couldn’t be certain McClellan is really leaving. Why not? “Between you and me, that guy is not too trustworthy,” Helms said of McClellan. When Stewart asked him to assume for a minute that McClellan is telling the truth this time, Helms laughed and appeared to have trouble believing that concept. Helms said the Bush administration reads the polls and knows people are unhappy with Bush “so they have responded by changing the person who tells us about those failures.”
“It is hardly a housecleaning,” Stewart said.
“Every housecleaning begins by changing the doormat,” Helms said. Helms then went into a bit that fell flat. He said every press secretary, including McClellan, has to get detoxed after they leave. This is because they have to filter so much bullshit and transform it into “oral excretions.” It made for a spiffy graphic but was not too funny.
There was also a weak bit that was good in concept but not as funny in totality. Bush referred to himself this week as “the decider.” The show thus created a fake cartoon, “The Decider,” complete with Batman-like sound effects.
For those wanting a lot of laughs, this was not their week. But if they wanted interesting conversations, they got plenty of that from the interviews. Two of his best interviews this week were about politics and religion.
United States Senator Edward Kennedy was there promoting his book, America: Back On Track. Stewart asked some good questions. “Is the lack of control by the opposition party in Congress the cause of this sort of strange unaccountability in Washington? Is that the issue?” When Kennedy mentioned the concern that the United States is becoming a crutch for the Iraq government, Stewart had a great ad-libbed remark. He asked Kennedy, “When you break someone’s leg, shouldn’t you have to be the crutch for a while?” Kennedy laughed but did not answer the question. The Senator wanted to talk about his book and was using clear talking points but Stewart threw him off-stride and off his prepared remarks with his comments and questions. The result was one of the more interesting interviews I have seen with Kennedy in a while.
Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, was there to talk about his new book American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Meacham was refreshingly witty and sharp, referring to God as “the big guy” and even getting in a dig at Thomas Jefferson. “Jefferson was as confused a religious figure as there ever could be. He would always be influenced by the last book he read,” Meacham said. I liked the question Stewart asked, “In terms of today’s politics, so many people want to invoke the founding fathers for their own argument. What has been the right’s overreach and what has been the left’s overreach?” It was a good question because it helped pierce through some of the usual B.S. put out by the right and left. Meacham said the right considers America as being founded as a Christian nation but that over time sectarian judges, journalists, and others have caused the nation to drift from that. The left wants America to be a “secular state with the Godless constitution,” Meacham said. “The truth is somewhere in between those two points.”
An interview with Dennis Quaid, promoting his new comedy, American Dreams, was lighter, but funny. There was a great exchange between Quaid and Stewart about the insipid game show, Deal Or No Deal. Quaid said he loves the game show because it “requires no intellectual ability whatsoever and you really get to check out your psychic powers. You get to watch families destroyed.” Stewart began riffing on the idea that the show is the result of game show producers worrying that other game shows are asking too much of its contestants.
Hopefully next week the show will be more consistently funny and clever than this week.