"I think you're a lot more fun on your show," said Tucker Carlson to "Crossfire" guest Jon Stewart this afternoon. "And I think you're as much of a dick on your show as on any other," Stewart shot back. It wasn't the faux avuncularity we've come to expect from Stewart on "The Daily Show" but there, of course, he's playing a role. Here he was himself -- and he wasn't buying any of it.
From the moment Stewart sat down he made no secret of how repugnant he found the show. In fact, he said to Carlson and co-host Paul Begala that he had been so hard on the show he felt it was his duty to come on and say to their faces what he has said to friends and in interviews. What he said was that their show was "hurting America," and he was being only slightly hyperbolic. Stewart told them that when America needed journalists to be journalists they had instead chosen to present theater.
Carlson, trying to affect an air of dry amusement that a comedian would presume to lecture him, important pundit that he is, but looking as if his bow-tie were about to start spinning, could barely contain his outrage. In an absolutely mind-boggling moment, Carlson tried to counter Stewart's criticism by pointing out that during John Kerry's recent appearance on "The Daily Show," Stewart asked the candidate softball questions. "If you want to measure yourself against a comedy show," Stewart said, "be my guest."
Paul Begala tried to put a more conciliatory face on things by pointing out that theirs was a "debate" show. Stewart was having none of it. "I would love to see a real debate show," he said. And went on to tell them that instead of holding politicians' feet to the fire by asking tough question, "you're part of their strategy. You're partisan -- what's the word? -- uh, hacks."
It's almost a cliche by now to talk about "The Daily Show" being more trusted than real newscasts, but Stewart showed why. He pointed out to Carlson that he had asked Kerry if he really were in Cambodia but "I don't care," and when Carlson asked him what he thought about the "Bill O'Reilly vibrator flap," Stewart said, "I don't." It was as concise a demonstration of the triviality of the media as you could hope for.
"I thought you were going to be funny," Carlson said toward the end of the interview. Stewart responded, "No, I'm not going to be your monkey." And that was what was so bracing.
Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance is going to generate talk about how prickly he was, how he wasn't "nice" like he is on "The Daily Show." But prickliness is just what was needed. If you've built your reputation as a satirist pointing out how the media falls down on the job, you're not going to make yourself a part of their charade.
I've heard people talk about "The Daily Show" as an oasis of sanity, a public service. I couldn't agree more. Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire" was another public service. He went on and acted as if the show's purpose really was to confront tough issues, instead of being the political equivalent of pro wrestling. Given a chance to say absolutely what he thought, Stewart took it. He accomplished what almost never happens on television anymore: He made the dots come alive.