Obama is a guest as Jon Stewart brings his 'Daily Show' gags to town

President Barack Obama barely cracked any jokes during an appearance Wednesday on "The Daily Show" despite host Jon Stewart's attempts to draw out the president's humorous side.
By Hank Stuever
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:31 AM

In search of the surest way to reach and encourage his core constituency during the midterm elections, President Obama visited "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" Wednesday night -- a show that prides itself on never taking anything seriously but still treated him with sympathetic awe.

That's how things are done now in the postmodern politiscape: Two men -- Jon Stewart and Barack Obama -- brimming with mutual regard, each of them funny in his own way, but managing to not be very funny together for the show's entire 22 minutes (plus a minute or two). Like any smart "Daily Show" guest, Obama knew the best bet was to play it straight.

"This is a nice set," Obama said, looking around at the garish marble columns and other federalesque touches on the set at the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall, where the show has been taping all week as a way to hype "The Daily Show's" much-buzzed-about Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which is scheduled for Saturday afternoon on the Mall. "It reminds me of the [Democratic] convention."

"We actually bought it," Stewart said. "It was in a warehouse."

(MORE on 44: Watch the full Stewart-Obama interview)

The laughs belonged mainly to Stewart. Poking gently at the president, Stewart wondered what we all wonder: Can the economy truly recover? Has the White House capitulated to Wall Street and other powerful interests? "Are we the people we were waiting for, or does it turn out those people are still out there?" the ever-meta Stewart joked.

"I am feeling great about where the American people are, considering what we have gone through," the president answered, sticking to a list of accomplishments. When he said that Lawrence Summers, who stepped down last month as chair of the National Economic Council, has done a "heckuva" job, Stewart pounced on an obvious opportunity for comic relief.

"You don't want to use that phrase, dude," Stewart said.

Obama seemed resiliently cool as ever, ready-made for just about anything one can do on television, on any channel, including Stewart's fake news show. But that anything -- a surprise moment, or a difficult question, or a failed attempt at humor -- never quite arrived.

It's not much fun to write reviews of "The Daily Show." Woe unto him (and a special, dismissive woe unto old-fashioned critics and op-edders) who attempts to make too much or too little out of the cultural juggernaut it has become.

Nothing makes a person look more out of sync with the times than when he or she sits at a keyboard and tries, unwisely, to interpret the layers of irony, meta-irony and complicated satire that form the "The Daily Show's" basis and explain its impact and meaning. You might make a point, but you will be mocked. Serious thoughts about Saturday's gathering (which Stewart is co-hosting with his colleague Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report") only invite more quasi-intellectual disaster.

In simplest terms, the rally will be a publicity stunt meant to promote two TV shows while harnessing the voices of disenchanted and ultra-bright moderates out there. If I read it right (and that's a big "if") Stewart and company merely wish to lampoon the bitter political divides and noxious mediasphere gases that prevent America from . . . from doing better?

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