Jon Stewart: Star of the show

The Saturday ProÞle
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To anyone not particularly enamoured of this year's hot gay cowboy love story or George Clooney's ruminations on the political currents of our distressed world, there is only one truly compelling reason to tune into the Oscars on Sunday night. And his name is Jon Stewart.

Stewart, who will be the first-time presenter of the 78th annual Academy Awards, may not be especially familiar to British audiences - save for the handful who've been tuning into Channel 4's digital offshoot More4 in the past few months. But in the United States he is now the single hottest thing in television. He's a comedian, first and foremost, much like his predecessors. But he's also something of a cultural touchstone, an essential part of the crazy times we live in, a bemused voice of (only slightly twisted) reason in an insane world. Most Americans will tell you they can't think of anyone better to dish it out to the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood's big night.

Stewart's chief claim to fame - his spoof news programme, The Daily Show - started out as an underground phenomenon on the Comedy Central cable station. By now, though, it has turned him into something close to a national treasure, because of his singular ability to skewer the idiocies emanating daily from the country's political and media elites.

He was essential viewing during the 2004 presidential election, and he hasn't stopped being essential viewing since. He's won an Emmy for his comedy, and a prestigious Peabody award for his services to broadcast journalism - a rare honour indeed for a show that claims to trade strictly in "fake news". Not only has he regularly tormented politicians, both Republican and Democrat, but he has also ripped the mask off the shallow, self-satisfied, entertainment-driven tedium of much of the networks' current affairs coverage. College students and other young people are, in fact, far more likely to tune into him to get their take on the day's events than they are to watch ABC, CBS or CNN.

The show, at its best, is delightfully simple: it makes fun of its targets merely by replaying a tape of them, catching them out as they lie, contradict themselves, utter self-evident nonsense, shrink into weaselly self-justification or stumble in their efforts at shameless self-aggrandisement. All Stewart has to do is sit back, demonstrate evident enjoyment at the lunacies unspooling before him, spout some apposite wisecracks and generally redouble the squirming discomfort of his intended targets.

Stewart manages to be smart, engaging, unpretentious, frequently hilarious and - perhaps crucially - good-humoured throughout. In other words, he manages to adhere to the old H L Mencken adage of "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted" without ever sounding sour, or pompous, or condescending. Mostly he achieves this with a felicitous gift for deadpanning. In a country where the rhetorical weapon of choice is the sledgehammer, he doesn't bludgeon his victims so much as stroke them to death.

To take an example: one of CNN's top interviewers asked him the other day how he envisaged his Oscar telecast and he told him it would be like nothing anybody had seen before. "What we're going to do," he said, straight face betrayed only by a certain cheeky sparkle in his eyes, "is we're going to take people and recognise their work for excellence. And those that win - we'll give them a trophy." He added: "I think people are going to be blown away by it."

The Oscars are a tricky assignment for any comedian. Recent memory is littered with hosts who either weren't funny (chat show host David Letterman), or funny in some way that sat badly with the Academy (Whoopi Goldberg), or predicated their humour on being offensive (last year's very funny but less than diplomatic host Chris Rock, who earned an on-stage rebuke from Sean Penn).

On top of that, Stewart knows the ratings success of Sunday night's show rests more than usually on his shoulders. This year's nominated films are notable for the tiny cinema audiences they have attracted, which means the vast majority of the 40 million or so Americans who might be tempted to tune into the Academy Awards won't have seen them. More people saw a bunch of flippers in the documentary March of the Penguins than saw Munich, or Capote, or even Brokeback Mountain, the most widely seen of the five Best Picture nominees and the one hotly tipped to bag the grand prize.

It doesn't help, either, that the subject matter of the nominated movies is almost unremittingly grim - frustrated gay lovers in rural Wyoming, assassination squads, racism in Los Angeles, the fear and paranoia of the McCarthy era. As Stewart jabbed in another pre-show interview: "This would not be the easiest song parody in the world to pull off. Not a whole lot rhymes with Syriana or Capote."

If Stewart is smart - and he certainly has a strong track record in that regard - he'll turn his satirical sights on the institution of the Oscars themselves, and give his usual comedic targets a rest for a night. He's already indicated he's not going to push things in directions they aren't easily going to want to go. Of Oscar, he remarked: "He's 78. I'm 43. I will defer. I'm not an anarchist. I'm a comedian."

As it turns out, Stewart has something of a career in cinema himself. Not a career that Jack Nicholson or Sean Pean would recognise. But a record, at least. (As he says, "I like to think of it as an oeuvre.") There was the yuppie in-line skater in tight shorts he played in the less than fondly remembered 1994 comedy Mixed Nuts. Or the evil alien science teacher in Robert Rodriguez's 1998 horror movie The Faculty - worth checking out to see him with a pencil jabbed into his eye.

More Americans will remember Stewart as a regular guest host on the spoof talk show comedy The Larry Sanders Show, starting in the early 1990s. The sensibility he helped to bring to that gloriously caustic take on backstage showbiz was what landed him the job on The Daily Show, starting in 1999.

The show had one host before him, Craig Kilborn, but really took off as Stewart found his feet behind the presenter's desk and the mainstream media more or less curled up and died in the face of the 11 September attacks, the war in Iraq and the relentless message discipline of the Bush administration.

It has been the failure of the traditional broadcast media to offer more than the most cursory critical analysis of current events that really gave him his opening. He habitually refers to Iraq as Mess'opotamia, somehow managing to find humour in the floundering of America's political leaders without trivialising what is going on. The day Donald Rumsfeld decided he no longer wanted to refer to the uprising in Iraq as an "insurgency" was a gift to him - not least because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, couldn't help using the word nonetheless.

Stewart casts his net a lot more widely than the politics of war. During the 2004 primary season, he more or less embarrassed the Democratic Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman into withdrawing his candidacy by replaying one clumsily over-optimistic declaration of his after another. A year ago, he exposed the entire class of media lawyers on cable television by replaying one after another confidently predicting the conviction of Michael Jackson in his child molestation trial. Jackson was, of course, acquitted. Last autumn, Stewart was one of the first to jump on the Bush administration's puny excuses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - picking up on the fact that key officials appeared to have received information about the growing crisis in New Orleans and elsewhere well after it had been amply aired on national television.

His critique is often sophisticated, even as he applies a light comedian's touch. Recently, for example, he contrasted the media's blanket condemnation of the author James Frey, who had fabricated his drug addict's memoir A Million Little Pieces, with a series of sycophantic interview snippets with President Bush and his top aides in which troubling issues such as the use of torture by America and its allies, or the false premises behind the war in Iraq, were brushed aside or laughed off. In Oprah World, as Stewart called the moral universe of the Frey scandal, every lapse is regarded as unforgivable, but in News World, no lapse is. And he went on, putting on a face of mock seriousness: "James Frey misled us into a book we had no business getting into."

Stewart is gloriously scathing about the shouting heads on cable news stations. When he appeared as a guest on CNN's Crossfire, he so devastated his hosts with his critique of their overscripted scrapping that the show was yanked off the air. "You're doing theatre, when you should be doing debate," he said. "What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery." Apparently, the president of CNN agreed with him wholeheartedly.

The politicians are sent up just as mercilessly as the media talking heads. When Vice-President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a friend during a quail-hunting weekend, Stewart ran with it for several nights in a row. Nobody had been shot by a sitting vice-president, he noted, since Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. That occasion was prompted by issues of high principle and honour; Dick Cheney, on the other hand, mistook his friend for a small pen-raised bird.

Will he have half as much fun with the Oscars? We can only hope so. Expectations are sky high, despite Stewart's efforts to deflate them ahead of time. "I've bombed in front of many fine audiences filled with many talented people," he said. "And if this is the night, well, that's the way it goes." That said, the country is in a mood to be entertained. And it - along with the Academy - can't think of anybody it would rather be entertained by.

A Life in Brief

BORN: Jonathan Stewart Liebowitz in New York, 28 November 1962.

FAMILY: Married to Tracey McShane. They have a 19-month-old son and a baby girl.

EDUCATION: High school in New Jersey. Majored in psychology at College of William and Mary, Virginia.

CAREER: Started out in stand-up comedy and television sketch writing. Hosted his own show on MTV between 1993 and 1995. Came to public prominence on The Larry Sanders Show, playing a guest host on the spoof chat show. Host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 1999.

HE SAYS: "As a performer, I'm truly honoured to be hosting the show. Although, as an avid watcher of the Oscars, I can't help but be a little disappointed with the choice."

THEY SAY: "To have a public intellectual host the Oscars, that doesn't happen too much." Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.