TAMPA — After a wide-ranging, 20-minute discussion that vaulted from a battery plant in Jacksonville to political repression in China and North Korea, Jon Stewart had one piece of advice left for his Daily Show guest, U.S. Sen. Marco 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 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 words describing body parts.
The fake news show opened the first of four shows at the Straz Center featuring its elections "coverage," dubbed "RNC 2012: The Road to Jeb Bush 2016." Rubio was the first guest; former presidential candidate Herman Cain and ex-Republican party chair Michael Steele will follow tonight and Thursday.
But, perhaps because Monday's RNC events were canceled by the passing of not-yet Hurricane Isaac, the first minutes of Tuesday's show ignored politics for a rat-a-tat spray of Florida jokes, from the humidity to the strippers 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 the city'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 that some people camped out as early as 7:30 a.m. to make sure they earned a ticket to the show.
Getting in was a challenge; audience members made reservations online months ago, but those were no guarantee of seeing the show. Fans still had to show up at the Straz Center hours before the scheduled taping time to get a numbered ticket that would let them enter the theater.
Despite waiting outside for hours, even after getting their tickets, the audience was enthusiastic and jovial, eager to see how the sausage gets made at their favorite news satire.
A crowd of 626 fans welcomed Stewart like a conquering hero, jumping to their feet from the moment he took the stage, chatting up the audience a few minutes before the 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.)
He took questions from the crowd, including one from a journalist wondering if he had reached out to Scott — once referred to on the show as "the emaciated Mr. Clean" — to get him as a guest.
"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 would 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," he said. "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, Stewart, 49, as usual offered a serious point, asking his audience to make sure they were tolerant of ideas with which they didn't agree.
"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 'Boooo!' … but not Daily Show audience members, because they enjoy the interplay."
Indeed, you'd hardly know a Republican convention was under way just a mile or so down the road, as Stewart's fans roared over bits criticizing Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments on "legitimate rape" and conservative complaints about media coverage of hurricanes during the RNC. They cheered as Stewart challenged Rubio on the idea that the Obama administration created much of the partisan rancor in government.
Rubio even revealed that Mitt Romney called him personally to let him know Paul Ryan would be the vice presidential nominee — something that didn't happen for every politician in contention.
"I cursed at him," the senator from Florida joked, before backing off. "No, I didn't."
The discussion went so quickly, Stewart continued it about 15 minutes past the time allotted for his show, putting the rest of their conversation online for those viewing on the web.
Even proud conservative Lisa Berg, a 41-year-old military veteran from Hudson, was willing to suspend her criticism for long enough to watch the show, courtesy of a ticket provided by a friend: "I figure if you can add humor to all of this, let's hear it."