By Betsy Rothstein - 09/21/05 12:00 AM EDT
Asking some lawmakers about comedian Jon Stewart can feel like visiting another planet.
Reporter: Senator, what do you think of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”?
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.): The what now?
Reporter: “The Daily Show.” It’s a show that makes fun of politicians.
Burns: Well, that’s OK. We’re pretty easy to make fun of.
Reporter: What kind of impact do you think Jon Stewart has?
Burns: None on me. We can make our own humor.
Reporter: Excuse me, congressman, have you ever watched “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”?
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas): No. I don’t even know who he is.
Fortunately for DeLay, his press shop is up on Comedy Central and is familiar with Stewart’s show and its impact. DeLay has even been asked to appear as a guest — at least once in the past two months — but declined because of a scheduling conflict.
“Since the 2004 campaigns, “The Daily Show” seems to have gained ground, and many on Capitol Hill use it as a means to discuss numerous topics,” said Ben Porritt, DeLay’s press secretary, who occasionally watches and thinks it’s funny. “So it’s proven to be successful.”
While Porritt insists that DeLay hasn’t gone on the show simply because of a packed schedule and bad timing, he said, “At this time, Mr. DeLay is really focused on the hurricane and the Republican agenda. So just with the number of conflicts, we need to prioritize the venues.”
And “The Daily Show” isn’t a high priority?
“Not at this time,” Porritt said.
Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), the most senior Republican in the Senate, was in the thick of a policy-luncheon press throng last week when he was asked about Stewart.
“I don’t know who that is,” Stevens replied as reporters broke out into a rush of questions about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and Hurricane Katrina. “Wait a minute,” the senator said, momentarily disregarding the issues of the day, “who is that?”
After the senator was informed, he deadpanned, “I wish I had time for TV.” The throng fell into a fit of laughter. Stewart might have been impressed.
For many members of Congress, particularly older ones or those who do not crave a national presence, Stewart is not on the radar screen. In certain circles, however, his impact grows and grows and grows; his popularity appears more solid by the day.
Next month, Stewart, who took over hosting “The Daily Show” from Craig Kilborn six years ago, will perform two shows at George Washington University. The comedian’s first show sold out so quickly that a second show was added. That, too, has sold out.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was recently on “The Daily Show.” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) have both appeared on numerous occasions; Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), at the height of his presidential race in July last year, went on it. Stewart later told Oprah Winfrey that the interview had not gone well, that Kerry had been too guarded and unrelaxed.
Even Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) turned up on the show last year to discuss homosexuality and religion. “I live in New York City,” Stewart said, beginning his mockery of Santorum’s stance on traditional marriage. “I’m literally — we’re in a sea of homosexuality.” (Santorum laughed.)
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) announced his candidacy for president on the show, but Stewart wouldn’t allow it, telling him the information didn’t count on a fake-news show.
Many Republicans seem keen to appear on the show, despite Stewart’s left-leaning politics and routine ridicule of Republicans, which includes a devilish imitation of President Bush’s laugh. He recently played a clip of Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) flirting with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and then suggested that Hannity’s adversary, Alan Colmes, should make himself scarce.
“I love the Jon Stewart show,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), adding that he’d like to appear but has never been asked. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re in the wrong business. He makes fun of everyone, not just Republicans.”
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) sees the show as both funny and serious: “It’s very funny, and it’s also occasionally insightful — sometimes more so than the mainstream media.” That, he said, is what the younger audience is looking for, a nontraditional context to get their news.
But is Stewart someone to take seriously?
According to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who watches when she can, he is: “He has a very important point of view. He points out absurdities, inconsistencies. He is a great reflection of what people say and do and how they often aren’t the same.”
John Ullyot, spokesman for Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), sees the show as therapeutic: “He’s hilarious, very talented, and helps us laugh at ourselves. The political world is funny on both sides. It has never offended me.”
Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Hastert has been asked to appear on the show but hasn’t accepted because he hasn’t visited Manhattan recently.
But Bonjean sees the benefits: “It does reach an audience that many elected officials can’t reach through regular contact with constituents,” Bonjean said. “It’s a great show, and you can’t take it seriously. If you’re taking it seriously along partisan lines, you’re making a big mistake. It parodies both Republicans and Democrats.”
Some lawmakers reciprocate Stewart’s needling. “I’ve never seen it,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). Never been invited on? “No, and I’m really ticked off, dammit. You think the son of a bitch has called me? No. If they’re not going to ask me on, I’m not going to watch the damn show.”
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has watched but has never been a guest. “Whether it’s Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno, when they are poking fun at people and the audience laughs, it means that it has become such common parlance among people. Regardless of whether it is true, the perception is true.”
Before going on the show in the spring, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) admitted, he was apprehensive. He had seen CNN’s emotional Anderson Cooper reduce himself to giggles on the show and didn’t want to behave like that. So he avoided excessive laughter and heeded his own advice.
“The key is not to think you’re the comedian,” said Nelson, who, while pleasant and sound-bite worthy, isn’t a laugh a minute. “You’re apprehensive because he is so funny.”
Nelson recalled that Stewart called him “Zell Miller without the crack,” and then he teased the senator about Nebraska and cattle.
When Nelson says, “I get all my news from John Stewart,” it’s a joke. But for some, particularly those age 18-34, it’s true. A famed statistic from the Pew Institute is that 21 percent of TV viewers 18-34 get the bulk of their news from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It’s one of the main reasons why McCain goes on the show.
“I love the fact that the majority of young people say they get their news from the Jon Stewart show,” said McCain, who has been on the show four or five times. “Every time I go on, a young person comes up and says, ‘I saw you on the Jon Stewart show!’”
So does Stewart have any serious impact? “On young people,” McCain said, “clearly, he does.”
Biden, who has been on the show three times, also sees the benefits: “He’s as smart as anyone I’ve gone up against. It’s the most dangerous show to go on — he’s smart and he’s funny.”
Still, some lawmakers may never get around to watching it, much less appearing on it.
Reporter: Senator, what do you think of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”?
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho): Who? I would not be a good critic. I don’t watch much television. I spend too much time reading.
Reporter: Congressman, have you ever watched “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”?
Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.): The who show? The what show? Mark Russell — I don’t think there’s anyone funnier than that guy.