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

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; C01

Springsteen detonates from above. Red and blue lights somersault. The drumbeats and guitar riffs of "Born to Run" flood the theater. The audience quakes while Jon Stewart leans over his desk for a last-minute powwow with a trio of writer-producers on Tuesday.

"Tell them to keep the pace up," Stewart says, his voice inaudible over the roar in the theater but carried clearly through his microphone to the giant white production truck on Sixth Street NW. Inside the truck, in front of a flickering wall of switchboards and video feeds that looks like a mini NORAD, the crew gets the message. This is a 22-minute song-and-dance. Nothing more, nothing less.

"10, 9, 8," yells the assistant director in the truck.

"No cheering from the crowd when we introduce correspondents," Stewart tells his team in the theater.

". . . 7, 6 . . . "

"Let's do it, baby," Stewart says, drumming a pencil on the desk as his team disperses. "Let's do it."

" . . . 5, 4 . . . "

On the main monitor in the truck, Stewart is passionately mouthing the lyric: "Will you walk with me out on the wire?" The answer from the ecstatic audience is apparently yes, we will. "The Daily Show" is 14 years old, mood-swinging between vulgar one-liners about Harriet Tubman's genitals and lacerating stabs at accountability journalism. But its momentum -- more money, more notoriety, a curriculum of books -- only continues if the jokes land in that tricky area between comedy and import.

" . . . 3 . . . "

The New York show that grinds its ax on Washington is now in Washington for first time in eight years, just before the midterm elections.

" . . . 2 . . . "

The president is coming on the show. There's a rally on the Mall on Saturday that could be huge.

" . . . 1 . . . "

It's all just for laughs, right?

"Roll!"

* * *

Earlier Tuesday, whiffs of manure waft along F Street NW, drifting past the production truck on Sixth Street, sneaking through the side entrance of the Harman Center, down a stairwell pulsing with writers in horn-rimmed glasses and production assistants in plaid, through a hallway of green rooms normally reserved for Shakespearean actors but now home to editing bays, post-show deconstructions and, at the moment, Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who was appointed to fill Joe Biden's seat and isn't running for election. (A snoozy choice for a guest -- is every other politician too busy campaigning or too wary of the show itself in these precarious days before the midterms?)

The Washington International Horse Show is at the Verizon Center, and its outdoor stables have blocked all of F between Sixth and Seventh. The "Daily Show" studio in New York is at 52nd Street and 11th Avenue, near stables for the steeds of hansom cabs.

The poop smell has followed them into the lion's den. So has a thrilling buzz, a blind anticipation of what the week in D.C. and Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will mean for the show. Or will it mean anything at all?

"I think it's just a joy ride," says executive producer Josh Lieb, before running to an editing meeting. "We make a good show, and people like to watch it. We want to make it as funny as possible. We feel good."

"The Daily Show" stock has ballooned over the past decade. While covering the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the crew stayed in college dormitories, where taller staffers had to line up multiple twin beds to get comfortable. Last time the show was in the District, for the 2002 midterms, the crew cracked wise about l'elegance de Renaissance.

On this visit to the District, crew members are staying at a super-luxurious historic hotel where lobbying was invented.

They've taken over the bowels of the Harman Center, building a honeycomb of cubicles for temporary production offices, pinning color-coded index cards to a big bulletin board to divide each show into four acts, getting lost in passageways and walky-talkying for assistance, tearing through pink boxes of treats from Georgetown Cupcake. ("They're like the Magnolia Bakery of D.C.," one staffer assures another in the break room.)

Nearby, a closed-circuit TV screen shows correspondent Wyatt Cenac rehearsing a sketch in which he plays a Washington journalist slurping martinis and trading favors with the people he's supposed to be covering. Sitting on a green couch is another correspondent, Aasif Mandvi, who joined the show in 2006 because they needed someone who could play a wide variety of "brown" roles, he says. Mandvi was born in Mumbai, raised in a Muslim household in England, educated in Tampa and embodies the on-set collision of comedy and politics. He's "definitely" had more airtime since the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan inflamed America's much-televised discomfort with Muslims.

"After 9/11, I feel like people were asking questions about Islam -- there was a seeking of knowledge, a seeking of understanding," says Mandvi, who got his start in off-Broadway plays such as his one-man show "Sakina's Restaurant." "And now what's happened is that people assume they have answers and have decided now to be afraid. I think that I'm really fortunate in the sense that I'm here on this show in this particular time in history and I'm able to sort of address the Islamophobia that exists in America right now."

Mandvi exudes this sociopolitical earnestness, which must be fermented into satire by the "Daily Show" writing team, then presented on camera as a bit with bite. During Monday night's taping, Mandvi wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Team Muslim" and bantered with "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore (wearing a "Team Black" shirt) about which minority was more feared by white people. As part of the act, Stewart chastised them for playing into stereotypes stoked by the media.

"Well, Jon, if they're not going to make a distinction between Muslims and violent extremists," Mandvi said, "why should I take the time to distinguish between decent, fearful white people and racists?"

The line landed and the audience erupted.

The polished product comes from muscle memory -- many staffers, like Stewart, have been with the show for more than a decade -- and the backstage choreography unspools precisely even in an unfamiliar space. The break room is Grand Central station, with everyone passing through on the way to edit a clip or fetch a prop or revise a section of script. Correspondent John Oliver's booming British voice echoes up and down the hallway. Stewart ambles through in his anchormanly suits, muttering, "What up, what up, what up." Correspondent Samantha Bee ribs Mandvi for wearing a fedora and eating bean salad.

"I'm getting mixed messages," she says in her practiced tone of elitist indignation (a send-up of elitists, of course). Bee calls herself the old battle-ax of the show, having arrived in 2003 before any of her fellow correspondents. She thinks that the show has evolved, that the team has outgrown the desire to go for easy laughs.

Was this next phase decreed?

"Not at all," she says. "Maybe we all just matured. A little bit. Every so slightly. I mean, you know, like a nanogram. What is the tiniest measurement? Maybe we're just too old to talk to crazy people."

So they don't scout for conventioneers in costume and loonies in tinfoil hats anymore, and instead ferret out hypocrisy in politics and the mainstream media. Isn't that a show of force beyond mere laughs?

"Are you asking us if we've gotten more important?"

Yes.

"No. I feel like everyone wants us to say that."

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.

"Everybody got a pink?" O'Neil shouts, and his team rustles through pink printouts of the play-by-play. "Act One has been revised. Two, three and four stay the same."

Inside the theater, comedian Paul Mecurio, a former writer for the show, warms up the crowd. He leads everyone in a chant as the lights begin to spin.

"Jon! Jon! Jon! Jon!"

In the truck, O'Neil breezes through the play-by-play as the assistant director, technical director, script supervisor and graphics supervisor follow along. "We're missing 109," O'Neil announces. "Then I go to Wyatt."

Now Stewart is taking questions from the crowd. Snippets of his answers come through the audio feed into the truck: "Politicians have a constituency they need to reach, and they see us as a chance to sell their wares to another audience. And we take full advantage of that naivete. . . . I am now of the mindset that the 24-hour news cycle controls, that it creates an urgency, a fear. So that's why we do what we do."

(Crack jokes? Defuse fear? Fight the cycle? Trigger a catharsis?)

"We're doing the whip-around right from the top," O'Neil says as Stewart wraps up the Q&A and "Born to Run" blasts over the theater speakers. Cameras slide into place on the monitors in front of the production team.

The countdown begins. "Will you walk with me out on the wire?" Stewart mouths.

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