Stewart landed gigs on MTV and Comedy Central and in 1993 wound up a finalist to replace David Letterman on NBC's "Late Night," losing out to Conan O'Brien. After his syndicated "Jon Stewart Show" was canceled after a single season, he popped up on programs such as "The Nanny" and HBO's "Larry Sanders Show."
When Stewart succeeded Craig Kilborn on "The Daily Show" in 1999, he transformed it into what Newsweek calls "the coolest pit stop on television." His program won Emmys this year and last. He will be profiled tomorrow on "60 Minutes."
"Even I'm sick of us," says Ben Karlin, the show's executive producer. But "the media beast must be fed," he added, amused that the show is being hyped by the "pack journalism" it regularly ridicules.
Stewart's humor is clearly fueled by anger. He's the guy at home "yelling at the TV," he says. Karlin say staffers come to morning meetings ticked off about various outrages and spend the day honing their insults into lighter material.
Stewart, who has called the Iraq war a mistake, is more likely than Jay Leno or David Letterman to ridicule Bush while going easy on Kerry, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found. "He's an outstanding comedian, but clearly he does comedy from the Democratic left perspective," says Republican strategist Mike Murphy. "A lot of people who watch Stewart and howl at the jokes already have their minds made up in the presidential race."
The secret of Stewart's appeal is that he mocks the conventions of journalism, with self-aggrandizing correspondents like Stephen Colbert and Rob Corddry standing in front of phony backdrops or making faces while interviewing unsuspecting citizens. In a sound-bite culture, Stewart uses video clips to highlight the absurdity of political spinners and media talking heads.
After playing a clip of Bush hitting Kerry on taxes by saying "the rich hire lawyers and accountants for a reason, to stick you with the tab," Stewart said, "Let me get this straight: Don't tax the rich because they'll get out if it? So your policy is, tax the hardworking people, because they're dumb-asses and they'll never figure it out?"
"Politics is funny, hilarious and stupid," says Jeff Jarvis, who oversees Conde Nast's online publications and maintains a blog called BuzzMachine.com. "But do you get that sense from networks and daily newspapers? Not really -- we get pompous about it. Stewart brings the humor back to it. He calls politicians bozos. And then he went over the next line on 'Crossfire' and called media guys bozos."
Stewart's Oct. 15 scolding of "Crossfire" co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala -- and his calling Carlson a four-letter name -- was one of those weird, awkward, riveting television moments that more than 670,000 people downloaded from cnetnews.com in the following days. He said the program is "hurting America" by encouraging partisans to yell at each other.
Says Carlson: "Jon Stewart is a talented comedian, and all of a sudden he wants to be Kathleen Hall Jamieson," the University of Pennsylvania author and media analyst.
"There are things wrong with cable shout-shows, definitely. There are things wrong with 'Crossfire.' What bothered me was the pomposity and sanctimony, the notion that we're the problem. He doesn't understand the role of shows like ours in the media food chain. Not only was he not funny, he was not interesting. Banal."
Stewart is somewhat stunned by the reaction: "Imagine being criticized for going on 'Crossfire' and expressing an opinion, and it wasn't an opinion that held to the left-right roles they're accustomed to scripting. I'm far more comfortable in my role as comedian. It was only a moment of honest frustration. I probably should have been more delicate."
But he is fed up with a process in which "people who are giving talking points come on these shows and are questioned by people on the other talking-pointed side. 'Crossfire' is the crack cocaine, the purest distillation of it."
Some journalists have rallied to his defense. "Jon Stewart never said he was going to renounce his standing as a smart guy who went to William and Mary and as a sharp social critic," says NBC anchor Brian Williams, a past "Daily Show" guest. "Sure he has an impact. The din of our media has reached the point where we could use a have-you-no-sense-of-decency-sir-at-long-last moment."
Koppel takes issue with Stewart's insistence that journalists should put forth the "truth." "Jon feels people like me in particular should be more opinionated, not less. He feels I have a responsibility to get in there and tell the public, 'Look, this guy is lying' -- maybe not quite that blatantly. I disagree with that only in part. . . . In a live interview you can say, 'That doesn't sound right,' but you don't automatically have all the facts at your disposal."
Stewart, who is especially popular with the journalists he ridicules, disappointed some of them by joking his way through much of the Kerry interview. "Is it true that every time I use ketchup your wife gets a nickel?" he asked.
He offered this explanation to Fox's Bill O'Reilly: "I am very uncomfortable going more than a couple of minutes without a laugh because the same weakness that drove me into comedy also informs my show."
In a final absurdity, an Internet petition is urging Stewart to run for president.
"It's not that young people don't like politics," says Cox, of Wonkette.com. "The way politics is talked about in the media is alienating. They're seeing Jon Stewart as a kind of hero who will lead us out of the darkness." Of course, she adds, "that's not his job."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.