Faking it

American television - What is Jon Stewart about? And why should we welcome The Daily Show? Nicholas

There has never been anything on American television quite like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Topical monologues by chat-show hosts poke light fun at politicians, but are careful not to cause offence. The military sitcom M*A*S*H had some edge, but it disguised its satire on the futility of the Vietnam conflict by relocating its black humour to Korea.

To find an equivalent to Stewart's fake news programme, to be shown each night on Channel 4's new digital channel, More4, which launches on 10 October, one must look back to pioneering British television comedy. Try combining the wit of Ned Sherrin's long-gone That Was The Week That Was with the subversive tone of Chris Morris's caustic cod-news show The Day Today, and you are getting close.

The last time that British viewers saw Jon Stewart, other than as a guest on a real news show or appearing on the weekly CNN Daily Show digest, was when he played himself on The Larry Sanders Show as a stand-up comic lined up to inherit paranoid Gary Shandling's mock chat-show chair. A lot has happened since.

In 1999, art began imitating art as Stewart found himself the genuine host of a fake nightly show that combines real events and real people with fake correspondents reporting fake news from fake locations. As the show's motto boasts: "One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility."

At the height of the Katrina horrors, the Daily Show correspondent Ed Helms reported soberly: "Today, finally, a ray of hope. Eight days after Katrina came ashore, the federal government has gotten its act together, marshalling all its resources in a desperate effort to save this beloved and now beleaguered president." Stewart: "I'm sorry, I thought we were talking about New Orleans." Helms: "Oh, no. That place is fucked." (The expletive was bleeped; even the Comedy Channel has limits.)

Stewart began a nightly feature called "Meet the F**kers" (his asterisks), which hung the feckless disaster chiefs out to dry, among them the fall guy, Michael Brown. Stewart reported: "Brown was appointed to the job in 2003 - and intends to start any day now", and reminded Americans that Brown used to run a stud farm breeding Arabian horses. "I guess he stands out," quipped Stewart, "as most Bush administration figures are beholden to Arabian people." When Brown was sacked, Stewart smirked: "He wants to spend more time doing nothing for his family."

Stewart can be even-handed. He had harsh words for the New Orleans mayor and the Louisiana governor, but he reserves his most bilious gibes for George W and his self-serving gang. When the sclerotic vice-president, Dick Cheney, eventually arrived to inspect the Katrina flood damage, The Daily Show had him profusely thanking the "first responders". And he said: "In fact, since my arrival I have been resuscitated seven times."

It is this chipper irreverence, so rare on bland American TV, that has won Stewart an enormous national audience and made him a powerful figure in both politics and broadcasting. A recent survey found that more people aged between 18 and 34 tune in to The Daily Show for their news than watch conventional news programmes.

Even though he pricks their pomposity and ridicules their beliefs, politicians, eager to connect with young voters, line up to be interviewed by Stewart, a professed Democrat who endorsed John Kerry at the 2004 election. He has quizzed Bill Clinton, Kerry, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps most telling, in 2003 John Edwards used a Daily Show appearance to announce he would run for president.

Stewart is both delighted and troubled by this trend. Recently, he asked students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government how many found his show the best source of news. When a forest of hands went up, he shook his head and groaned: "That's pathetic."

Behind the quips, Stewart is an earnest, greying 42-year-old with a serious purpose who has single-handedly exposed much of American news as glib and irresponsible infotainment. He accepted an invitation to CNN's shout-fest Crossfire to reprimand the hosts for demeaning pol-itical debate. "You have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably," he declared. "You are helping the politicians and the corporations. You are part of their strategies. You are partisan hacks." When the bow-tied Republican apologist Tucker Carlson told Stewart, "I thought you were going to be funny. Go on and be funny", Stewart snapped back, "No. I'm not going to be your monkey." The acid encounter struck a nerve among CNN managers and, just three months later, Crossfire was canned and Carlson sacked.

For six years Stewart has had the field more or less to himself. Since 11 September 2001, and then the Iraq invasion, the overwhelming majority of American journalists have been cowed, just as much of the British press was intimidated into obsequiousness during the Falklands war for fear of being labelled unpatriotic. All that timorousness came to an abrupt end with Katrina, as the bogus reporter Samantha Bee of The Daily Show, late on the scene in New Orleans, duly noted. Stewart asked her to "talk a little bit about . . ." before she cut him off. "Talk?" she snapped. "OK, people are suffering here and all you offer is platitudes, photo-ops and empty promises. We want action!" Then she lightened up. "Sorry, Jon, I only got here yesterday and I never got my chance to berate a public official."

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart begins on More4 on 10 October (8.30pm)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, A very corporate loss of nerve