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Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show' has exploded beyond its humble late-night comedy roots

But the president. The rally.

"Do you honestly feel -- you can say that I'm using a tone in my voice," she says, folding her legs into a lotus position. "Do you honestly feel like our show is effecting change? I don't think so. Personally, if I'm just speaking for myself, I think it's very cathartic for people, but I don't think we're out there changing people's lives. I don't think that would be the funniest way to begin your day. That seems to me like a terrible joke-killer, to have a mission statement."

The next night, though, the show would scrap its only funny bit after the taping. Stewart riffed in a segment titled "How Long Can We Make the President Wait?" He drummed his fingers, flicked a paper football into the audience and cut away to a clip of a pasta-eating contest before introducing the president as "White House chairman of the council of economic advisers Austan Goolsbee's boss." After taping, they reshot the introduction using the sober line, "Please join me in welcoming the president of the United States, Barack Obama." There wasn't enough time for the jokes and the serious interview.

(And also another danger, beyond being disrespectful: It wasn't that funny.)

* * *

Out on F Street, a chatty throng flanks the building, inching through security for the taping. Around the corner is the production truck, which is half the size of the show's normal control room in New York. As a large digital clock ticks toward showtime, the crew squirms up and down a narrow aisle. Playing on one monitor is an unflattering medley of clips of John McCain, a frequent guest of the show who is now a frequent target.

Lighting designer Bob Culley scans a switchboard. Culley has been around since the beginning, when Craig Kilborn hosted the startup cable show on a cheap set in a tiny studio at what is now the Hudson Hotel at 58th Street and Ninth Avenue.

"Jon turned it up a notch," Culley says. "We did goofy bits, more pop culture, and he brought the political in. Jon has ratcheted up the show constantly."

But "The Daily Show" has always had a core function of social responsibility, and it was conceived to lambaste the laziness and ineptitude of the media, according to show co-creator Lizz Winstead, who departed the network before Stewart replaced Kilborn in 1999.

"The fact that it's become this force to be reckoned with says something about the need for it," says Winstead, who plans to attend the rally before performing her touring one-woman show at Artisphere in Rosslyn. "Jon has taken it to a place. I can't speak for the show at this point, but it's following trends. I think that Glenn Beck's rally was so crazy -- the fact he had the hubris to say he was restoring honor and all this [expletive]-- that this rally seems like a natural progression. I feel like it's a natural satirical place to go."

Stewart didn't go it alone. His director, Chuck O'Neil, slides into a chair in the center of the production console. O'Neil started six months after Stewart, and the two collaborated to develop the sheen and rhythm of a nightly newscast, to make it more ready for prime time than late night.

"I don't know if it's being more influential," O'Neil says. "I think it's just been funnier and funnier. It's become a more on-point show." Shooting in Washington, he says, is disorienting only technologically, not psychologically. It's still just a 22-minute TV show that needs to hit cues, land punch lines and run like clockwork.

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