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

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?

Over the years, "The Daily Show" has proved to be particularly analysis-proof, disinclined as Stewart is to invest any time explaining his act. Nothing ruins a joke more than sentences that start with "But seriously . . ."

Whenever anyone mistakenly loads too much meaning behind Stewart's satire, he steadfastly maintains that this is all just shtick. It is and it isn't. We all know that. If you call it a movement, the way Fox News's Glenn Beck referred to his own God-and-country, TV-show-inspired rally back in August, you'll merely provoke giggly jokes about bowels.

"The Daily Show's" take on D.C., grandiloquently subtitled "Indecision 2010: When Grizzlies Attack: The Daily Show Midterm Teapartyganza," have relied mainly on the growing contempt for "Washington" (an abstraction that those of us who live here learned to endure eons ago), no different than the virulent anti-government vibes in midterm campaign ads that Stewart so gleefully mocks. This is always great fun and truly an American pastime; Washington exists to be resented.

For added insult, there have been remote-reporter gags from "Daily Show" staff comics that paint the town as a corrupt quagmire. Samantha Bee made fun of the "subway, excuse me, the Metro," which she said was a word for "subway's gay cousin." (G-word jokes? After all these weeks of "It Gets Better" viral videos against bullying and anti-gay slurs?)

Jason Jones keeps popping up in the "wrong" places -- K Street SE instead of the legendary rue d'corruptive influence; looping endlessly around Dupont Circle in search of one of four different Second Streets, on which he hopes to locate the Supreme Court building, cursing a "Frenchified city layout that makes no [bleeping] sense!" Big laughs from the studio audience on that one.

Likewise, a sketch in which Jones, Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver pick up a group of diverse "Daily Show" viewers on a bus ride to D.C., and encourage them to engage in partisan spats. Of course, the sketch hinges on the fact that they seem tolerant of one another's opinions -- interested, even. "Agreeing to disagree is not a television show!" Jones shouts.

Neither have Stewart's other guests this week managed to make much of a television show. Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, who has been a sharp "Daily Show" guest in the past, seemed to lose his way Monday night, committing the miscalculated "Daily Show" error of trying to be funny on his own. The result was two men trying to do the same sketch from different cue cards. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) didn't fare much better on Tuesday night, saying "And by the way" as Stewart was offering a handshake and the crowd was applauding a commercial break.

"The Daily Show's" saving grace is its trenchant media criticism in the form of damning evidence from news video vaults, a true art form that the show makes look deceptively easy. Nothing worked better in this week's shows than a video montage Tuesday evening that caught Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) posturing about Washington's systemic failures and outmoded ways again and again -- in clips dating back nearly every year to 1989. Devastatingly funny, and the reason "The Daily Show" still thrives.

As for Stewart himself? Is anyone in Elitistland allowed to say we are slightly tired of him and his shrugs, his mock gasps, his pretend girly-man squeaks of excitement in the promo touting the Obama interview? I was reminded of this by staying tuned for the far superior, far more nuanced, rarely out-of-form "Colbert Report." It would take a heap more typing to explain what's working there.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

(30 minutes) continues its week in Washington at 11 p.m. Thursday on Comedy Central.

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