Jon Stewart, fake journalist and proud of it, keeps insisting he's just a comedian.
Night after night, "The Daily Show" host lampoons President Bush as a tongue-tied bumbler, Donald Rumsfeld as a mad ranter who resembles "Pete the crazy guy outside my apartment," the war in Iraq as a giant "Mess O' Potamia" and the reporters who cover the presidential race as self-important clods.
Such sharp-edged skewering has turned the Comedy Central funnyman into a cultural phenomenon who, despite his protestations, seems to be having some undefined, irony-drenched influence on how the campaign is perceived. He's been on the cover of Newsweek and now graces the cover of Rolling Stone. His "America (The Book)" is the nation's top seller. He has analyzed the media as Ted Koppel's guest, dissected the party conventions as Tom Brokaw's expert and ripped into his hosts on "Crossfire" for presiding over "theater" and "partisan hackery."
"There's a difference between making a point and having an agenda," Stewart says. "We don't have an agenda to change the political system. We have a more selfish agenda, to entertain ourselves. We feel a frustration with the way politics are handled and the way politics are handled within the media."
Stewart, 41, has announced that he plans to vote for John Kerry, who made one of his few television talk show appearances in recent months on "The Daily Show." That might come as little surprise to viewers who have watched Stewart relentlessly mock Bush while just poking gentle fun at Kerry's ponderous speaking style.
All of which means "the Jon Stewart backlash should start right about now," says Ana Marie Cox, also known as Web satirist Wonkette. "Stewart has pretty much painted a target on his chest with his 'Crossfire' appearance. To say his is just a comedy show is a cop-out in a way. He's gotten so much power. So many people look to him that you can't really be the kid in the back throwing spitballs."
But with a program that more than doubles the audience of "Hardball" with 1.2 million viewers -- many of them in the hard-to-reach younger generation -- Stewart's comedic spitballs are leaving their mark. Half of 18- to 29-year-olds say they regularly or sometimes learn things from late-night comedy shows, a Pew Research Center survey found. Fourteen percent of "Daily Show" viewers say they are liberal and just 2 percent conservative. Only 17 percent of the program's audience is over 50.
Stewart disputes the notion that younger viewers turn to him for news, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center backs him up. "Daily Show" fans are more knowledgeable about current events than those of other comedy shows, the center found, rivaling newspaper readers and network news viewers.
"It's not fake news," Stewart says. "We are not newsmen, but it's jokes about real news. We don't make anything up, other than the fact we're not actually standing in Baghdad. . . . The appeal of doing the show is that it's cathartic."
In a year when Howard Stern, Michael Moore and Bruce Springsteen have used their entertainment platforms to rip the president, Stewart provides an ideal venue for politicians -- especially Democrats -- looking to demonstrate hipness. Kerry was happy to appear because Stewart "has got a big audience that is different from the audience that watches 'Meet the Press' or 'Nightline,' " says spokesman Joe Lockhart. "Jon Stewart has a huge following on college campuses," and the format is "not as confrontational" as on hard-news shows.
Little wonder, then, that John Edwards announced his candidacy on "The Daily Show." Or that Stewart's guests -- when he's not chatting up Hollywood celebs about their new movies -- have included Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, Bush adviser Karen Hughes and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. Stewart can tell sex jokes one minute and have a serious foreign policy discussion with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria the next.
"When I listen to Jon, he really is profoundly concerned and angry about real issues," Koppel says. "He is to television news what a really great editorial cartoonist is to a newspaper." But, Koppel says, "a satirist gets to poke and prod and make fun of other people, and when you say, 'What about you, dummy?,' he says, 'I'm just a satirist.' "
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who has interviewed Stewart and appeared on "The Daily Show," is another fan. "There's no doubt he's an important fact of life in this current political environment," Blitzer says. "Off camera, he's a very politically aware news junkie."
Jon Stuart Leibowitz, who grew up in suburban New Jersey, is a physicist's son who found himself tending bar and doing puppet shows for schoolchildren after graduating from Virginia's College of William and Mary. He dropped his last name when he started doing stand-up at Manhattan comedy clubs, waiting tables to get by.