Thursday, August 6, 2015

The day I hung out with Jon Stewart

After a stellar 16-year run, Jon Stewart signs off for good from The Daily Show tonight. Late night television won't be the same without his snarkiness and blade-sharp sense of humor.

Stewart's departure took me back to 2004 when I hung out at The Daily Show for a day while I was the television critic for The Palm Beach Post. No one can skewer the news like Stewart. I knew this already, but it was reinforced seeing him do it in person.

Here's that story....

 "Let me hear you make some noise!!!!" 
    The 100 giddy audience members on the shoebox-sized set of the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are more than happy to oblige as they scream, wave, yelp and pump their fists in wide-eyed delight. 
    But Paul Mercurio, the show's hyper warm-up man, isn't impressed. 
    "Show some more enthusiasm," he shouts to the crowd as a disc jockey named Rocky spins deafening heavy metal jams. "I need you to blow the roof off this joint." 
    It's 6:20 p.m. - 10 minutes before Mr. Fake Newsman emerges to say hello to the crowd, sit behind the anchor desk and host what has become TV's most popular - and funniest - satirical news program. 
    For now, however, the crowd belongs to Mercurio. When he spots a conservatively dressed older man, for instance, Mercurio cracks, "How about a hand for (Gilligan Island's) Thurston Howell III." 
    He then goes on to poke fun at Puerto Ricans, attorneys, nuns, an overly excited guy from Uruguay and even Stewart
    "Jon is a little (guy)," Mercurio sniffs. "You can kick his a--. But don't stare. He's very insecure." 
    It's 6:30 p.m. That means Mercurio's time is up. Nobody trekked to The Daily Show's midtown Manhattan studios to see some unknown warm-up guy. 
    When Stewart, looking very Ted Koppel-like in a dark suit, gray shirt and striped tie, walks on stage, the audience stands and cheers wildly. He sheepishly pretends not to know what all the fuss is about. 
    "I don't care for this program and I don't watch it," he says sternly. "It's crass and puerile." 
    But we all know nothing could be farther from the truth. 
    Comedy Central's Daily Show is the hot button show of a divisive political season. Which is why viewership is up 25 percent from this time last year. During the week of the Republican National Convention, The Daily Show averaged 1.4 million viewers. And when the show aired live after the first presidential debate, a whopping 2.4 million viewers tuned in - the most in the show's eight-year history. 
    Amazingly, The Daily Show has become a key venue for vote-hungry politicians. Vice presidential nominee John Edwards, for instance, used Stewart's Emmy-winning show to announce his candidacy. And Sen. John Kerry yukked it up with Stewart in August. 
    The guest for this night's taping is Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. The show, however, is a few weeks before Reilly would be accused of sexual harassment by a female producer at Fox News. 
    Stewart acts as if he's intimidated by the big, bad O'Reilly. 
    "He's much larger than me," he says. "Please have my back." 
    With only a few minutes before taping, Stewart takes a few questions from the audience. It's in those fleeting moments where you get a great appreciation of just what makes Stewart and his show so popular. 
    Without the aid of cue cards or a script, Stewart does what only truly gifted performers can do - think quickly and be funny. 
    Someone asks him why he co-wrote the bestselling America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, a faux government textbook. 
    "I'm Jewish and Jews control the media," he says. 
    Next question. 
    One woman talks about the joys of blogging. Stewart rolls his eyes. 
    "Sounds like a crack problem," he says. "I don't know what you just said." 
    Another person wants to know why the letters on the TeleprompTer are so big. 
    "I can't read and the show is done phonetically," Stewart responds quickly. 
    It's easy to miss The Daily Show's West 54th Street headquarters/studio - a mere four blocks from my old high school, by the way - because it's inside a nondescript, two-story, burgundy-brick building. 
    30 Rock, it's not. A tiny blue awning that simply says The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the only hint that an actual TV show studio exists inside. 
    It's two hours before showtime on a balmy fall afternoon. Folks are already starting to line up. 
    For the 20 or so fans waiting early, Jack McGee, the show's head of security, has a very important message. 
    "Anyone who has to use the restroom please line up in front," McGee says in a whispery, thick-as-mustard Noo Yawk accent. "Once you get inside, you won't be able to go." 
    McGee looks like an interesting character. He's tall and balding. His eyes dart around a lot, so you know he doesn't miss much. I learn McGee has been the head security guy since the days when snarky Craig Kilborn ran the place. 
    "I've only missed one week since I've been here," McGee says proudly. 
    I wonder how the audience for the show has changed over the years. 
    "In the beginning, it used to be older people," he says. "Today it's more or less people between 18 to 34. The kids today are more interested in politics than they used to be." 
    McGee looks like a no-nonsense kind of guy you don't mess with. A few Daily Show fans have found that out the hard way over the years. 
    "I've had to straighten people out when they find out they're not getting in," he says matter-of-factly. 
    Like how? 
    "I'd rather not discuss it, but they've been taken care of. You know, you get a couple of young kids who come in with a few drinks in 'em. Sometimes they get in and start acting up, go inside the bathroom and do some blow. But I catch 'em and take care of it."     

    If there was any doubt about Stewart's broad-based appeal, it's on full display today. 
    I see young women in eye-catching low-riders. Older, Wall Street-type guys in suits and ties. I see one lady in a wheelchair and two women journalists from Germany. I see hip Gen-Xers on $200 camera cellphones and kindly looking grandmothers who can remember when Jack Paar hosted The Tonight Show and when movie tickets cost $1. 
    Frances Helen Guest, 79, has been to The Daily Show twice and agrees with everything Stewart says. "He can really see through things and some of the shams that we're being fed," she says. "And I'm tired of the shams. I want a little truth to come out. I want somebody to see some of the things I see and Jon does that for me." 
    David Mulkins teaches high school social studies in New York City. He admits he never heard of Stewart's show until his students told him about it. Now he's hooked. 
    "I like the satire and I like the fact that he's always shooting down the sacred cows," says the 47-year-old Tennessee native. "In his satire he shows you the way the media, as well as public officials, mold the way we think and how they distort truths or even lie." 
    Joan Hervey, who lives in Plainsfield, N.J., says she waited 10 months to get her tickets after ordering them last winter. 
    "I thought they didn't like me," she says. "But I never forgot about it. Jon Stewart is one of the smartest people on TV and his commentators and writers are astute and really brilliant." 
    While Kristin Reisinger also thinks Stewart is smart, she appreciates his other attributes as well. 
    "He's kinda sexy," the 32-year-old Reisinger says, smiling devilishly. "This is a good way for me to start out my birthday weekend." 
    At around 20 minutes to 6, Terri Abrahams, The Daily Show's brassy audience coordinator, comes out to tell everyone they can't use cellphones, pagers or flash photography once inside the studio. 
    She adds that no one should even think about asking for a picture with Stewart or an autograph from him. 
    The crowd groans disapprovingly. 
    "Upper lip, sweetie, upper lip," Abrahams says to one woman. "Don't make me hurt you inside the studio." 
    Back inside that raucous studio, I'm sitting next to a bald guy named Dale. He won't tell me his last name. I do know he's 30, from Vancouver and a stand-up comic. 
    He says he likes Stewart comedic point of view. 
    "He doesn't just tell jokes," Dale says. "There's substance to what he's talking about." 
    Does Dale think he can be the next Jon Stewart
    "In my dreams," he says, laughing. 
    All Dale wants to do today is "absorb and learn." 
    After chatting with O'Reilly about everything from the war in Iraq to bongs in the green room, Stewart tells Mr. Fox News Star during a commercial break that he always finds him "interesting and surprising." 
    At the time, I'm sure Stewart didn't know how prophetic those words would be. 
    It's 7:30 p.m. The show is over and Stewart thanks everyone for coming. But before the crowd can head for the exits, a production guy starts whispering in Stewart's ear. 
    Here comes an announcement. 
    "We have one extra thing to do because I did something wrong," Stewart says sadly. "It'll only take a few hours. I hope you brought a sandwich." 
    Stewart, of course, is kidding. 
    And that's no surprise coming from TV's savviest lampooner.