The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central.

Were it not for Jon Stewart, I think I might simply have disengaged from the news years ago. The Daily Show is hardly my only news source, but it is my only news source that also keeps my spirits up. Even when reports are dismal, when tragedy strikes, when politicians prove once again that I’m not yet cynical enough to anticipate all the outrages they’ve committed, The Daily Show makes me laugh. It might be just a bitter chuckle, but it’s enough to keep me from permanently withdrawing from the public square into the corners of my private life.

I’ve wanted to attend a Daily Show taping ever since Sean and I moved to New York, and this past week I finally had the opportunity. The studio was bigger than I expected, large enough to accommodate a couple hundred wildly enthusiastic fans. The crowd greeted Stewart’s pointedly funny commentary about Alberto Gonzalez’s behavior before Congress with raucous laughter, but there was earnest applause, too, and I joined in both, thinking between segments about what that meant.

I’ve read that Stewart cringes inwardly when his audience applauds rather than laughs. He always insists that he is a comedian, so if a joke prompts fervent clapping rather than delighted giggling, it has failed. I guess I see his point, particularly when the crowd is antagonizing an interview subject whom Stewart is sincerely trying to engage in conversation, but I think he draws too hard a line.

Sometimes, yes, the applause follows a glib jibe that panders to the audience’s largely liberal sensibilities, and then it’s cheap, unworthy of them and us. More often, though, we applaud because we’re grateful that our jester can say what we cannot. Recently, for example, Stewart stubbornly took issue with John McCain for the Republican presidential candidate’s tawdry talking point equating dissent with how President Bush is conducting the war in Iraq with betrayal of the troops on the ground. Stewart refused to let that slanderous, intellectually dishonest line go unchallenged in the name of some misguided sense of courtesy or “balance,” and the audience members applauded because such refusal is disgustingly rare on TV, and we long for it.

By making us laugh, Stewart keeps us from despair—that’s obvious. But by asserting himself, standing up for his patriotism, the patriotism of dissent, he stands up for us, too, and that also gives us reason to hope. Of course we applaud.

Because after six long years under the Bush administration, much of Stewart’s audience is angry, and he knows it because he is, too. Frustration and outrage fuel much of the humor on The Daily Show these days. During one break at the live taping, when the camera was off, Stewart referred back to Gonzalez. “He holds contempt for the American public,” he muttered darkly. “That’s contempt.”

Stewart wasn’t being funny, and no one laughed, and no one applauded. It’s not the kind of statement you applaud because it’s so dismayingly blunt and disheartening. But the man directing the cameras hurried things along, and Stewart perked up for the final segment, and everyone started laughing again.

And that, I think, is the wonderful alchemy of The Daily Show. Stewart and his crew take our anger and indignation and refine it, leavening it with wit and absurdity and polishing it until it’s funny as well as sad. They acknowledge our anger and then move us past it, laughing along the way, until we reach some emotional place that might not be constructive yet but at least avoids being destructive.

The Daily Show has endured for nearly a decade under Stewart (it premiered in 1996, but Stewart didn’t take over until 1998) because it inspires both laughter and nods of recognition and approval. That’s why it wins Emmys for outstanding comedy writing as well as Peabodys for distinguished achievement in election coverage. That’s why Stewart’s protestations that he’s just a comedian ring a bit false; he’s wearing other hats, too, and he must know that by now. The Daily Show makes us laugh, it makes us think, and it makes us steel ourselves for another day.