It's close to 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 7, and in a small TV studio on the far west side of Manhattan, Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart is going live for only the fourth time -- tonight to cover the absurdist political theater known as the California recall election. After two days of Ah-nuld mockery and poll monitoring (''Can you imagine if this f -- -in' thing doesn't go through? Can you imagine the disappointment we'll all feel?'' Stewart says), something unexpected happens: Schwarzenegger is quickly declared the winner and coexec producer Ben Karlin informs Stewart by slipping him a postcard during a commercial break. (''It's exactly how they do it at ABC,'' the anchor cracks.) Back on the air, Stewart ad-libs a few lines announcing the victor, which leaves almost no time to interview former gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington. The host apologizes to her during the next break: ''We're running so short on time because on a fake program like ours, it's difficult to cram real news in.''
The newscast may be phony, but the show made real headlines at this year's Emmys. Two weeks before Daily's live recall broadcast, Stewart accepted the award for best variety show, breaking Late Show With David Letterman's five-year streak. (The clincher, says Stewart: ''I think it was my interview with the girl from Felicity.'') His series, which airs against local news Mondays-Thursdays at 11 p.m., satirizes both Washington and the media with Stewart's sit-down stand-up act, his correspondents' bitingly funny reports, celebrity/newsmaker interviews (''The weakest part of the show, through no fault of anyone's but mine,'' admits Stewart), and a final, surrealist video clip dubbed the ''Moment of Zen'' (e.g., footage of Schwarzenegger air-jamming with Twisted Sister's Dee Snider on ''We're Not Gonna Take It'').
In a year of heartbreak (the war in Iraq) and the downright bizarre (Gary Coleman for governor!), The Daily Show has defined itself as the most relevant comedy act around. (Take that, ''Weekend Update''!) At its center is Stewart, 40, the kind of guy who's smarter than you, but doesn't rub it in your face; the kind of guy who drops references to Wilford Brimley and The Breakfast Club into conversation, yet talks intelligently with Henry Kissinger; and the kind of guy who's become the media elite's It Boy (take that, George Stephanopoulos!), but still identifies with Revenge of the Nerds. Viewers are beginning to notice: Daily Show ratings are up 15 percent over 2002 to 900,000 viewers (large by late-night-cable standards), and the show beats CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News among young adults at 11 p.m. (Daily also airs a weekly edition on CNN International, which reaches some 200 countries.) ''People were criticized for saying anything against the war,'' says Daily correspondent Stephen Colbert. ''For some reason, we weren't. It made us stand out.''
Some of those outstanding moments included Stewart sweet-talking France (''C'mon...don't be an invada hata''), skewering Geraldo Rivera (''The only three other people the U.S. military has asked to leave Iraq are Saddam Hussein and his two sons''), and staging a ''debate'' in which candidate Gov. George W. Bush (in sound bites from 2000) opposes President Bush's justifications for the war. (President Bush: ''We will help you to build a new Iraq.'' Governor Bush: ''I don't think our troops oughta be used for what's called 'nation building.''') Deadpans Stewart, ''We're really hoping the U.S. attacks Syria, because I'd love to follow up the Emmys with another win.''