The Daily Show in Tampa: Visiting the Church of Jon Stewart
TAMPA -- There is no feeling quite like standing in the Church of Jon Stewart.
Normally, that house of worship sits in a tiny studio space on 11th Avenue in a neighborhood once called Hell's Kitchen. But this week, Stewart's Daily Show has come to Tampa, intent on parodying the biggest story in politics, the Republican National Convention, tricking out the stage in Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center into a supercharged vision of the show's typical New York set.
And on Tuesday during a taping that started late and ran long, the comic and his crew took aim at the biggest, fattest target available: the city of Tampa itself.
Perhaps because Monday’s RNC events were canceled by the passing of not-yet Hurricane Isaac, the first five minutes of Tuesday’s show ignored politics for a rat-ta-tat spray of Florida jokes, from the strippers to the humidity to bugs big enough to cart off a grown woman.
“Isaac has passed, returning this city back to its normal atmospheric conditions..somewhere between (a) steam room and a subway platform in Haiti,” correspondent John Oliver intoned, footage of ruins displayed behind him as a stand in for Tampa's Grant Park neighborhood. “There is no place you’d rather be, particularly if you’re an insect from an Indiana Jones film."
Or if you’re a rabid fan of the Daily Show, which drew such a devoted audience Tuesday, some people camped out early as 7:30 a.m. to make sure they earned a ticket to the show.
In all, 626 faithful crowded into the space after signing up online, showing up early to get numbered tickets and returning later to wait in the heat for access to the show (even a few people without tickets got in through the show's "standby" line; organizers say you can show up and stand around even if you don't have tickets, with the knowledge that you might not get in.)
The congregation was mostly college age and middle age - bright-eyed liberals who might be the only lefties stuck in town who weren't protesting at the actual RNC down the street.
He even drew in a few conservatives, like 41-year-old veteran and devout Christian Lisa Berg from Hudson, who laughed nervously that her conservative father would be "turning over in his grave" to see her laughing at the travails of the GOP with a comic who calls Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott an "emaciated Mr. Clean."
"All this stuff can get pretty emotional," said Berg, who had trouble articulating exactly why she considered herself a conservative, beyond her faith and her military service. "I figure, if you can add some humor to it all, let's hear it."
(At right, correspondent Samantha Bee conducts an interview at the Tampa Bay Times Forum; Daily Show correspondent spotting has become a sport of sorts at the RNC)
Of course, no one is quicker to disavow the near-religious devotion of fans than Stewart himself, who spent a few minutes chatting up the audience just before taping started (Those weird, seemingly out-of-context jokes he often cracks at the show’s start? Those are usually shout-outs to stuff he says in these moments.)
The comic took questions from the crowd, including one from a journalist wondering if he had reached out to Gov. Scott to get him as a guest, despite months of lampooning him on air.
“Yes…I wrote him a personal letter, I don’t know why he didn’t reply,” answered Stewart. “Well, I shouldn’t say write. I cut some letters out of a magazine. We’ll see what happens.”
He also took questions about whether he’d visit the area’s strip clubs (nope), whether he thinks the country could survive electing a Republican president (“Uh yeah…I don’t know if you remember, we survived a civil war.”) and if he would go party at the University of Tampa.
“I would totally like to be the creepy old guy at UT,” said Stewart, who is actually just 49 years old. “I’m onstage right now, wearing makeup, wearing a suit. You might think, ‘That guy doesn’t have osteoporosis,’ but I do! I’m an old man.”
Still, in the middle of the laughs, as usual, Stewart offered a serious point; asking his audience to make sure they were tolerant of ideas they didn’t agree with. “Sometimes (our) guests mirror your viewpoints exactly…other guests they challenge it,” he said, drawing chuckles. “Some audience members might feel the need to go ‘booo’..but not Daily Show audience members, because they enjoy the interplay.”
That resolve was tested during an interview with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio which ran so long, the show put most of it online after their five-minute spot on the TV show ended.
After a wide-ranging, 20-minute discussion that vaulted from talk about a battery plant in Jacksonville to political repression in China and North Korea -- even Stewart exclaimed "what the hell are we talking about?" by the end -- the host had one piece of advice left for Rubio.
“I think you should leave the Senate…You should take over for the Rick Scott,” he said Tuesday, tossing a barb at Florida’s current chief executive. “Florida deserves a governor with hair.”
Fans know, that’s just how they roll at the Daily Show, where well-researched satire about media and politics mingles with pot jokes and bits centered on liberal use of the word “vagina.”
Expect more of the same as the shows continue from the Straz, with a "homecoming" bit still to come from Tampa-raised correspondent Aasif Mandvi and guests Herman Cain tonight and Michael Steele Thursday.
Check out the actual episode by clicking here: