For those who like to see television take anti-war figures seriously -- or at least somewhat seriously -- there's really been only one sure place to turn in recent weeks: Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
Comedian Chris Rock said recently on the faux news program that reporters from genuine news outlets had been trying to trip him up on his political stance. "No, I'm not really for the war," Rock says he replies, and then gets told -- "So, you're against the troops."
"I didn't say that," Rock explodes with a mischievous grin, then tells Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart, "There's this weird McCarthyism right now." Stewart, sharing his frustration, says, "It's as though there's only two positions you can have -- you're either for the war or against the troops."
It's counterintuitive, but in their irreverent way, Stewart and co-executive producer Ben Karlin have brought viewers unusually extended conversations on the very human response to war, on a program dedicated to the pursuit of laughter.
"It wasn't our agenda," says Karlin, who, along with Stewart, is the program's head writer. "The show is much more an organic product of our collective brain trust."
There's no dearth of humor on The Daily Show, which airs 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Washington and Hollywood make particularly appealing targets.
About 10 days after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Stewart posed the tough questions: "Will the war be over soon? How will a post-war Iraq be governed? When will Madonna exploit the conflict?"
A recent Daily Show story on a conservative activist's anti-Hollywood campaign ended with correspondent Ed Helms' "We Are the World"-style anthem, that instead carried the refrain, "Shut Up, Celebrities."
Similar jokes, if less daffy ones, could have found a home on other late-night television shows.
Yet many people are currently leery of attacking authority figures such as President Bush, even rhetorically. A stock political jab by Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry calling for "regime change" in next year's president elections led to condemnations. Many late-night television hosts have softened their barbs, finding easy jokes in tying Iraq to former President Bill Clinton's peccadilloes.
No such apprehensions exist at The Daily Show. Pieties are pieties, and they exist merely to be punctured.
Hence, earlier this month, Stewart described American bombing strikes against sites in Baghdad as "the U.S. military's whack-a-mole approach to killing Saddam Hussein."
Here's Stewart on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "There is nothing like a cantankerous old man who takes the 'Hey, kids -- get off of my lawn' approach to foreign policy."
On the day that U.S.-led forces seized Baghdad, Stewart told viewers: "It's all over but the humanitarian crisis."
"Crowds danced in the streets, cheering on U.S. soldiers, opening gay discos," Stewart said, pausing to acknowledge that he'd made up that last item.
When Stewart asked correspondent Stephen Colbert, ostensibly reporting live from Baghdad, about the rebuilding process, Colbert replied:
"We won. Rebuilding is for losers. Time to party. And then it's off to Syria for the next invasion."
Stewart asked, in mock disbelief: "Are we invading Syria?"
Colbert: "Am I still bounded by the military's restrictions on embedded reporters?"
Colbert: "Then no."
Not much sanctimony there. Yet Stewart also invited Susan Sarandon on his show at a time when the outspoken actor and peace advocate has been as welcome as SARS at a convention of hypochondriacs. And The Daily Show has not limited its roster of guests to the famous. Those appearing include commentators from the political left and right, including senators, ambassadors and journalists, and, apart from some playful asides, they've been treated essentially as serious people.
In the hall-of-mirrors world of modern television, it is the supposedly serious cable news channels that have largely focused on mouthy celebrities to represent anti-war concerns. Janeane Garofalo -- a friend of both Karlin and Stewart -- has been the earnest face of peace activists by default, if only because few leading politicians have been openly critical of the Bush administration's approach. The news channels have hired as consultants a brigade of formers -- military officers, intelligence officials, diplomats -- but they almost invariably challenge only the tactics used, not the wisdom of the enterprise.
Earlier this month, as U.S.-led forces advanced toward Baghdad, MSNBC anchor Lester Holt conducted a rare interview with Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the lone Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war. In several different ways, Holt pushed Chafee to acknowledge his stance had been mistaken.
Chafee said he never doubted the military's ability to prevail, but feared the repercussions of straining alliances, to which Holt replied, "What about your language? Are you ratcheting it down because U.S. troops now are on the line?"
The Daily Show is, if anything, ratcheting it up.
When Fox News Channel, a frequent Stewart target, played footage of bombs exploding over Baghdad to a backdrop of triumphal symphonic music, The Daily Show replayed the videotape against tacky 1970s-style funk more appropriate to a pornographic film. "It's not a straightforward talk show -- so we don't have to be this thing that people turn to for comfort and direction," Karlin says. "And it's not a news show, so it doesn't have too much of what is essentially this artifice of objectivity."
Instead, Karlin says, "It's pretty much a reflection of how we're feeling at that time."
Stewart may have best revealed his true sentiments when he remarked on the revelry that ensued when Hussein's capital fell:
"No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, if you are incapable of feeling at least a tiny amount of joy at watching ordinary Iraqis celebrate this, you are lost to the ideological left. And let me also add if you are incapable of feeling badly that we even had to use force in the first place, you are ideologically lost to the right. And I would implore both of those groups to leave the room now."