NEW YORK -- Halfway through the hour-long Election Night edition of "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart invited former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld onstage. In response to a question about the particularly vitriolic anger and mudslinging of this year's election, Weld said, "I've been sitting in your greenroom watching your show, and it's a lot of fun. It kind of reminds me that's what I've been missing for the last year."
In truth, if there hadn't been "The Daily Show" every night to depend upon, there would have been very little fun for any of us this year. Which is not to say that "the most trusted name in fake news" hasn't also acted as a truth-teller, revealing the darkest side of the Bush administration.
But that's what great comedy does: It alleviates and disturbs at the same time; it distances you from the heart of despair while bringing you closer to the truth of what it lampoons. By this standard, "The Daily Show" has been nothing short of a godsend.
Watching Stewart and Weld (and Al Sharpton, who was chiming in via satellite) trade jokes, while on "real" news the U.S. map turned progressively red, was made all the stranger when watching it live at Comedy Central's Election Night party in the West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Many fans assumed this would be a victory party -- or at least a silly, star-studded celebration. But the comedy jibed weirdly with the heated political competition, turning the club into the true nexus of the universe, a cosmic (alas, not comic) collision of reality and make-believe.
One branch of the bar could be labeled a "greatest hits" room, giving the impression that the grueling election year has been little more than a television series. A flat-screen TV played clips from "The Daily Show's" past election coverage; framing it were two wheels of fortune, one with President Bush's face in the middle and select Bushisms near the spokes ("I know how hard it is to put food on your family"), the other featuring Sen. John Kerry ("Hypothetical questions are not real").
Outside on the patio, there was a giant photo booth where guests could get their picture digitally added to the cast of "The Daily Show." Mirrored disco balls (one donkey, one elephant) twirled above the crowd in the main room. And on television screens throughout the club, floating, they seemed, above the heads of the few hundred Viacom employees, comedians, advertisers and flacks, CNN and Fox News played out the election news on mute while '80s songs blared from the speakers. Only when "The Daily Show" aired live at 10 p.m. did the music switch off and the TV's sound turn on.
No one was really paying much attention to the TV screens (although every now and then you could see a Kerry-swag-bedecked drinker gazing upwards and biting his lip as Bush's numbers climbed) or even talking politics; almost everyone was more absorbed by their friends and the occasional celebrity sighting to be worried about what was happening out there in the country.
The few celebrities on hand, however, were eager to share their political views.
"I voted for John Kerry because he's an intelligent leader and will take charge of the situation in Iraq," said Mena Suvari. "I don't want what happened in the last election to happen tonight. I hope this is different."
Actress Illeana Douglas sat tucked in a booth with a male friend, both of them gaping at the televisions. Why wasn't the clearly agitated Douglas, who wore a "John Kerry" nameplate necklace, taking in the spectacle at home, with friends? "I'm actually leaving soon to go somewhere where we can watch [the news] more," she said. "I thought this was going to be much quieter, and we'd be doing more listening."
In a way, the two actresses summed up the awkwardness of the evening. On one hand, there was listening, and watching, to do; on the other, a restless nervousness of a repeat of the 2000 election kept most people from engaging. Downing their free drinks faster than is usually socially acceptable, many seemed too stressed about the election to pay attention to the outcome.
There was no doubt this was a Kerry crowd: T-shirted hipsters with "You Forgot Poland" and "Worst President Ever" huddled together for a smoke in the club's outdoor garden, creating a sloganized anti-Bush quilt hemmed together with pro-Kerry badges. Only when Stewart appeared on the TV screens to host his election special, "Prelude to a Recount," did the chatter die down. Once again, Stewart showed his knack for predictions.
"This is the closest election we've had ... in four years," he deadpanned at the start of the show. "It's pretty much the same as last time -- but the whole world is watching. People in Iraq are saying, 'They invaded us to bring us this?!'" Only "The Daily Show" could make such horrendous news so palatable.
Close to midnight, "The Daily Show's" correspondents made their entrance and brought a little much-needed humor -- and political talk -- with them. "I voted for John Kerry -- on the working families party line," shouted Rob Corddry over Bel Biv Devoe music, although he admitted Ralph Nader would be good for the show. "We could out-silly them both," he said, referring to Bush and Kerry.
There was, at this late hour, still nothing to celebrate, and increasing evidence that there wouldn't be for a long while. "It would be so obnoxious of me to predict anything," said Ed Helms. "But I'll predict that I'm going to get drunk!" Stephen Colbert admitted that he didn't have "the slightest idea" who would win. "We're fake news," he reminded, "so the whole time we're in the studio, we're not learning anything."
Still, it seemed that beneath the jokes, there was a sadness, and it was that sadness that made one yearn for the jokes. Anyone who has seen at least one episode of "The Daily Show" in the last four years knows that disgust with Bush is the fuel that feeds the show's fire. At the same time, "The Daily Show's" success is predicated on a devil's bargain, of sorts, since driving Bush out of office would surely deflate the show's success.
Stewart addressed this Monday night, when, after pleading with the audience to vote, he added, "On a personal note, I am a comedian who makes fun of what I believe to be the absurdities of our government. Make my life difficult. Make these next four years really shit for me."
But anyone who would dare suggest that a Bush win would be a great thing for "The Daily Show" (ahem, Tucker?) doesn't understand the show's soul, what makes it so special that hundreds of fans would spend their most anxiety-ridden moments at a party in its honor. Colbert captured the tenor perfectly. Asked if "The Daily Show" could survive a Kerry win, he said, "I'm sure there will be something incompetent somewhere." If Bush wins, "I'll go back to doing Carmen Electra jokes," he said. "They don't wound the heart as much."