Jon Stewart's affable demeanor may lull casual viewers into thinking he's just another celebrity shill, but his Leno-like nice-guy approach is just the cover for a fierce interviewing technique that would make Mike Wallace proud. Witness his recent pointed interviews with Sen. John McCain, Lynne Cheney and Chris Matthews as proof that Stewart's got more on his mind than his next one-liner.
When it comes to interviews, Stewart is notoriously sycophantic. On the flip side, sure, Stephen Colbert frequently interrupts his interviewees, makes their ideas -- even the ideologically unassailable ones -- sound ridiculous and prefaces his on-camera interactions by cautioning guests in the green room: "Remember, I play a character who's a complete . . . ." But the people Colbert interviews make their points despite his conversational riffing rather than because he asked them softball questions. And he provides unimpeachable integrity in an era when fake news has stolen much of real broadcast news' thunder.
2. Social Relevance
Stewart may say time and again that "The Daily Show" is just a comedy show on basic cable, but every once in a while his moral outrage at the current state of affairs in the world is barely concealed with a smirk. Keith Olbermann may be garnering recent praise by mixing media analysis with laughs, but Stewart was there first.
He coined a neologism, "truthiness," that was named "word of the year." He had his viewers change Wikipedia to say that Africa's elephant population was not endangered but, in fact, had grown. He even has a bridge in Hungary, a plane and a hockey league mascot named after him. But in his guise as a feckless Bill O'Reilly clone, he is not so much preaching to the neoconservative choir as he is being the biggest bully in the bully pulpit. Funny? Yes. Persuasive? Not so much.
3. Laugh Out Loud Factor
For a show that's on four days a week, Stewart does a fantastic job of keeping things fresh (it helps that his source material, the 24-hour news cycle, is so imminently lame). That said, some nights it seems that he's giving himself the biggest laughs with his Bush or Cheney impressions -- a cheap out. And for most of the show, Stewart's playing straight man to his crew of correspondents.
From the first moment of "The Colbert Report," when the deranged-looking eagle flies toward the screen, the show is a nonstop guffaw-fest mostly for its host's ability to remain so unshakably in character. Verbally quicker on the draw than just about anyone in television, Colbert is deliberately annoying and all the more hilarious for it.