October 24, 2004

Must Jon Stewart change his interview style, now that Henry Kissinger is doing his show?

Damien Cave, in the NYT Week in Review, argues that Jon Stewart should do tougher interviews on "The Daily Show," because his audience is such a large chunk of an important demographic, because he's getting such important guests, and because it's tiresome and lame to keep excusing himself with the "hey, I'm just a comedian" line. Cave quotes Dan Kennedy's Boston Phoenix blog:
"Stewart needs to be more self-aware ... By offering serious media criticism, and then throwing up his hands and saying, in effect, 'Hey, I'm just a comedian' every time [Crossfire's Tucker] Carlson took him on, Stewart came off as slippery and disingenuous. Sorry, Jon, but you can't interview Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, Bill O'Reilly, Bob Dole, etc., etc., and still say you're just a comedian."
(Can someone justify the NYT practice of not putting hot links in its on-line text? Here's the missing link.)

Cave's piece is titled, "If You Interview Kissinger, Are You Still a Comedian?" The complaint is with the softball interviews, not the blatant pro-Kerry bias that has undercut the comic value of the rest of the show. So let's talk about the interviews.

The interviews on "The Daily Show" have always been filler. I nearly usually skip the excruciating interviews with celebs pitching their (usually horrible) films. Some comically-gifted guests do well with Stewart and can be the best part of the show. As for the political guests, they come on the show to promote a product too, usually a book. Clinton, remember, was selling a book (and also selling his party's candidate for President). But how is Stewart to adapt his style of managing the self-serving promoters who stop by his show to these inherently unfunny politicians? Stewart relies heavily on his shambling, stuttering, I-am-an-idiot pose, while hoping to spot an opportunity for a wisecrack. If he tried to make these interviews more hard-hitting--to Russertize his style--he would likely drive away the high-level guests Cave and Kennedy are talking about, leaving only the most motivated book promoters.

Stewart can preserve the style of interviewing he's worked out for himself, which gives him a safety zone and avoids pretending his background is not the entertainment business. He just needs to resist getting sycophantic with guests whose politics he's motivated to sell. As to the truly high-level guests who aren't there to sell books--such as John Kerry--he's got to put them at ease and be respectful or they won't come on the show at all.