An Evening with Jon Stewart
Prince Edward Theatre, Sunday
“Tonight the part of Mary Poppins will be played by a Jewish guy reading from a book,” announces Jon Stewart, the improbably handsome host of Comedy Central / CNN-syndicated news satire The Daily Show, prior to taking the stage for a one-off London show. In Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down: Stewart’s take is that a healthy dose of satire helps to balance the mixture of polemic and propaganda which constitutes the vast majority of America’s news output.
Tonight, Stewart and two of the show’s co-writers have occupied the Prince Edward theatre to push Stewart’s humorous hardcover America (The Book), and the likes of Salman Rushdie, Richard Dreyfus, Alan Rickman and Armando Ianucci have come to hear him. No doubt, they are expecting the kind of cosy political satire for which The Daily Show is renowned among America’s liberal left wing, and his first joke — something about making torture more palatable by renaming it ‘freedom tickling’ — gets us off to a good start.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there as Stewart and his co-writers read aloud from a book which, it appears, almost all of the audience has already read. At the end of the 90-minute show’s first half, Stewart brings on special guest Ricky Gervais, whose unscheduled appearance brings the house down. “I didn’t get that kind of welcome and I flew 5,000 miles,” Stewart complains testily, noting that Gervais “only walked from the Groucho Club,” approximately 25 metres from the theatre. “I didn’t walk,” ad-libs Gervais with a sneer, winning the evening’s biggest laugh. No wonder Stewart rushes Gervais off stage barely two minutes later.
Stewart throws the second half of the show over to an audience Q&A session, which proves an unwise decision: Stewart’s background is in television writing rather than stand-up comedy, and his lame retorts to anything but the blandest questions show that his particular brand of comedy is the kind honed around tables filled with coffee and snacks, not in smoky clubs in front of hecklers and drunks. Equally unwise is the decision to respond to every criticism of American culture with a different spin on “Yeah, well, you Brits aren’t much better.” Even when the jokes hit home, they do so less like smart bombs than scattershot weapons aimed at soft targets. Overall, it’s a deeply unsatisfying evening, especially for anyone expecting the kind of socially-conscious comedy for which two comics often spoken of in the same breath, Mark Thomas and Bill Maher, are lauded. Tonight, Stewart seems to be going so far out of his way not to offend anyone, it no longer seems like he’s trying to win David Letterman’s seat on The Late Show. It’s more like he’s running for government.