President Barack Obama is used to playing the straight man when facing Jon Stewart's sarcastic humor on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
But on Tuesday afternoon, in Obama's third appearance as president (and seventh overall), he and Stewart were serious, offering few laugh-out-loud moments and instead tackling issues like the Iran nuclear deal, the Department of Veterans Affairs and public service.
The president did open the taping of the show with a joke, offering to issue an executive order that the retiring "Jon Stewart cannot leave the show," then admitting that the order was already being challenged in court.
But Stewart quickly pressed the president on his efforts in the Middle East, wondering "whose team are we on" there before laying out the mixed-up alliances and clashes in the region.
"That's not quite right, but that's okay," Obama joked, before Stewart interrupted, "Who are we bombing?"
Stewart said the United States had tried many different approaches in the Middle East, including sending 100,000 troops and arming militant groups.
"This new thing, you called it earlier, diplomacy," Stewart said. "That sounds interesting."
Obama took the bait, moving quickly to a lengthy pitch advocating the diplomatic agreement to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. He said that Iran would remain a problem in the region, but that "we have taken off the table what would be a catastrophic problem if they got a weapon."
And Obama playfully tweaked the critics of the deal, marveling how they seemed to believe that "if you had brought Dick Cheney to the negotiations, everything would be fine."
In a segment that officials at the show said would appear only online (the episode was scheduled to be broadcast at 11 p.m. Eastern time), Stewart grilled the president on why government does not work more effectively.
"Government works better now than it ever has, given what we ask it to do," Obama said in response to a series of questions about lapses in service delivery by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We've been able to systematically add resources to the VA," Obama said, echoing remarks from earlier in the day in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' national convention in Pittsburgh. "You still have this massive structure with millions of people being served."
Stewart offered more of his trademark skepticism, contending that Veterans Affairs was an example of an agency that should be doing better, especially more than six years after Obama took office.
To counter that, Obama cited the IRS, which he said had been underfunded by Congress. He said critics — including Stewart — had been too quick to believe that employees at the revenue service had singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
What really happened, the president said, was that Congress "passed a crummy law" that was vague about what employees should do. And he said employees at the agency enforced the law "poorly and stupidly."
"Boy, you really do have only a year left," said Stewart, whose last show is Aug. 6.